14 October, 2011 - 14:34 By News Desk

Sherry Coutu: Hackathons inspired Facebook and LinkedIn

Sherry-Coutu-SVC2UK Silicon Valley Comes to UK

Guest blog by angel investor and serial entrepreneur Sherry Coutu,  co-chair of Silicon Valley Comes to Cambridge and its UK spin-outs

Weekend hackathons are extremely common in Silicon Valley - in fact,companies like Linkedin and Facebook credit some of their most fantastic innovations to them.

The words ‘hacking’ and ‘government’  may seem to fit uncomfortably together given security breaches – notably in the US - that have come to light in recent times, but in fact, companies like http://challengepost.com in the US and http://youngrewiredstate.org/in the UK and have been helping corporates and governments alike to challenge young software developers to create apps that use their data to make them better.We just do it with students, who are perfectly capable of addressing these problems and have every reason to do so.

The fact that UK students have been given carte blanche to indulge what is tantamount to a ‘hackathon’ can be legitimately described as historic in UK terms. I'm delighted to have been able to have brought this together under the umbrella 'Silicon Valley Comes to the UK' this year for the first time.

Our appathons, which were run across the UK (Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, Sheffield, London and Southampton) brought together around 1200 students together to work with government data specialists and mentors from their local and from the Tech Community to create new apps in the areas of health, education and environmental data.

Cambridge, London, Edinburgh and Sheffield were first up last week and it will be interesting to see how their efforts compare to other centres throughout the UK when the programme has run its course by the end of this month.

The appathon initiative seeks to inspire students by increasing the understanding they have about what can be achieved through coding and teamwork.

We want them to know that many of the most brilliant innovations at Facebook and LinkedIn came from weekend hackathons. The initiative addresses the issue of students not 'getting' how high impact a career in high growth tech businesses can be or how much can be achieved through teamwork rather than individual efforts. Neither of these points are adequately addressed in current educational establishments.

Because we set up the programme to be a student initiative supported by alumni – the business community and the universities themselves (in that order) – the appathons programme is a great example of students taking action to change their life chances.

Those who take the initiative are rewarded. The programme also underlines the willingness of alumni in the tech community to be helpful to students they have a connection with and thereby allows the university itself to tap the goodwill of alumni to add value to their student body in a good way that in the long run strengthens their own relationship with the alumni.

I don't know of many other bottoms-up grass roots movement that creates this 'win' 'win' 'win' situation on a scaleable global basis.

Students should be doing things to enhance their own environment rather than expecting everything to be handed to them. Universities should accept and encourage this. They should also seek to use their alumni to 'give back' in such a way as to enrich their students’ extra-curricular learning rather than asking for handouts every other year in the form of cash.  People – we all have so much more to give than just cash.

And we in the tech community - there is a dramatic shortage in our ecosystem of able students graduating with skillsets that are immediately useful to us - and this is one of the biggest barriers to our businesses growing and forces us to have to get staff who do not originate in the UK, which is more expensive and slow.

Many of us are convinced that a career in technology is more high impact than the 'normal career routes' like banking, consulting, law, medicine' that are 'normally' highlighted to all students.

In fact, six per cent of technology companies produce 54 per cent of jobs and account for 25 per cent of ALL growth in our economy. Is it not our and our universities’ duties to help shed light on this exciting, vibrant and meaningful path? Silicon Valley comes to the UK does this in spades.

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