Tax Functions are Ripe for Hackers

  • March 17, 2017

Corporate tax functions should welcome hackers with open arms. I’m serious.

Vertex recently completed a one-day hackathon in which colleagues from a diverse collection of business and functional areas gathered to brainstorm and develop potential solutions for a user interface (UI) challenge, designed by a team of Vertex employees.

What did we gain from the event? We fostered new, cross-functional relationships; inspired new approaches to familiar problems; generated fresh thinking on UI; and created a nurturing learning environment. It made me think that more tax departments should consider organizing and/or participating in hackathons.

The concept, a mashup of “hack” and “marathon,” originated in technology companies and information technology (IT) functions at the very tail end of the 1990s. By the mid-2000s, these events were more prevalent, especially in Silicon Valley, where start-ups and venture capitalists embraced hackathons as a way to accelerate the development of new technologies and spot new investment opportunities.

The hackathon we conducted adhered to similar principles, structures and processes followed by most company-led events. This Fast Company article provides a good introduction, with some guidance on internally-focused hackathons. Larger, commercial hackathons feature similar objectives, but tend to attract participants from many companies, enlist event sponsors and offer prize money, as hackathon-event pioneer TechCruch has described.

The purpose of the Vertex hackathon was to generate new ideas concerning how users interface with our software, and we framed this objective in a clear problem statement. As the sponsor of the event, I made sure that we invited colleagues – those from both inside and outside our IT function and software development area – with wide-ranging expertise. We limited the event to a finite period of time (one day) and strongly emphasized the need for constructive collaboration and a safe learning environment in which “mistakes” are encouraged.

Based on the ideas that were presented at the end of the day – and also on the glowing survey feedback we received from participants – our hackathon was a major success. I was also struck by the range of ancillary benefits we experienced, including:

  • New collaborations: We brought together talented people (tax managers, a legal expert, a communications writer and a software tester, among others) who hadn’t brainstormed previously. These new connections resulted in some eye-opening ideation.
  • Outside-the-box thinking: We exposed non-IT employees to new thinking on UI, and we exposed our UI experts to new ways of thinking about UI.
  • Innovation stimulation: By providing a safe place to test new ideas and approaches, participants saw that some concepts that do not work out, actually succeed in advancing the discussions toward better ideas. This “fail-fast” mindset will come in handy when participants address challenges and take risks in their own domains moving forward.

These benefits certainly extend to tax functions, more of which might want to consider how hackathons can help generate creative solutions to key challenges.

Please remember that the Tax Matters provides information for educational purposes, not specific tax or legal advice. Always consult a qualified tax or legal advisor before taking any action based on this information.

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