How 200-Year-Old Citibank Totally Nailed Its Hackathon

The Fortune 500 had better take notice. Citi, a 202-year old institution with 250,000 employees in a stodgy industry perceived to be more boring than watching paint dry, didn't just nail its first public hackathon in the U.S. — it may have broken the mold. Billed as the #CitiMobileChallenge, the hackathon not only achieved a multitude of objectives (setting the bar for every major corporation to follow), it proved how, with the right stakeholders on board (from the top of the company to the bottom), it is possible to maneuver an aircraft carrier as though it were a nuclear submarine.

Though the majority of my observations were made as a judge at the hackathon's New York City semifinal (there were two other semifinals, one in Silicon Valley and the other in Miami), the saga of Citi's hackathon actually began in Latin America — a region that is richer with developer talent than most in the global tech community may realize.

As Jorge Ruiz, Citi's managing director of global digital acceleration, explained to me, for a company with no experience in running public hackathons, Latin America was the ideal region for running a pilot. Not only is the Latin American developer community highly capable of driving significant innovation, it gave the Citi team a chance to hone its approach to hackathons before coming to the U.S., where the effort would get significantly more attention from the public (not to mention the company's executives). Like a dress rehearsal, the Latin American hackathon — whose tagline was "Eat, Hack, Sleep and Repeat" — yielded significant lessons that enabled Citi to deliver a command performance in the U.S. (where the tagline was "Unleash. Develop. Disrupt.")

And that it did.

The structure of the hackathon was similar to others where the first round was virtual. According to a Citi spokesperson, "On Sept. 22, Citi announced the launch of the Citi Mobile Challenge U.S. and by the Oct. 3 deadline, the company had 744 registrations from 62 countries and 319 cities. On Oct. 10, the API toolkit was distributed to participants who were invited to the next round of the challenge. They submitted their final concepts by Oct. 19." From there, finalists were picked to advance to the "physical" semifinals in Silicon Valley, New York and Miami, where they were offered an opportunity to demo their wares on stage (more on this later). The majority of judges were stakeholders internal to Citi, but some were outsiders like me.

One point worth making: The API toolkit did not represent a public API that Citi has already published in the wild. Rather, somewhat proving the value of being able to mock an API before developing the real one (something that many third-party API solutions can do), the API was a prototype that offered developers opportunities to query and interact with fake bank accounts. Citi is planning a comprehensive API program but has not yet committed to a release date for any public APIs.

Finalist selection was based on degree of innovation, coding and technical quality of solution, ease of use, benefits for users, scalability, business potential, possible Integration with existing Citi platforms, ease of implementation and the ability to rapidly add value to Citi's business. 

True to form for even the best hackathons, the results ranged from "ho-hum" to the "so slick it's kind of creepy." For example, I haven't really stopped to consider the implications of Apple's iBeacon technology. But in demonstrations of the technology's hyperlocal potential, at least two developers showed how an account holder's entire profile could be pushed to tablet-equipped Branch managers and staff at the moment that account holder wanders into a branch. (Note to self: Disable all iBeacon-related technologies on my wife's iPhone.)

By now, you're probably saying, "So what?" After all, it doesn't sound remarkably different from the dozens of other hackathons that follow the same basic virtual-to-physical format. Here are the top five ways Citi's hackathon set the bar for others to follow:

1. An All-In Transformation: As best I could tell, this wasn't really about a hackathon as much as it was about a transformation of Citi. Industries like banking and the companies that are a part of them face the constant threat of outside innovators like Stripe co-founders John and Patrick Collison, who are ready, willing and able to disrupt the status quo because the status quo can't get out of its own way.

Having spent most of the day surrounded by her lieutenants in a perch befitting Caesar in the Coliseum, Citi CMO Heather Cox (also Ruiz's boss) took the stage to put the issue more eloquently: "Our biggest fear is that a bank is where the money sits as opposed to us being more engaged with the customer." 

In a time when the Stripes of the world will carve out a piece of a bank's value proposition and turn it into a frictionless Microservice that sweeps the banking industry away with a single line of code, Citi and other banks are justifiably terrified that if they don't transform their organizations now (like immediately), they'll end up as little more than commodities (the place where the money sits). An important commodity, but a commodity nonetheless.

At the New York event, attended by hundreds of Citi employees who witnessed the speed and breadth of innovation that's possible, Citi COO Don Callahan (also in the room) made it clear that "our aspiration is to be the world's digital bank." But for a 200-year-old heavily siloed company like Citi to get out of its own way and transform itself, the company's most important stakeholders have to envision both the threat and the potential.  

For example, a significant number of the spectators were Citi's attorneys, a constituency that must, among other things, keep a bank that operates in 160 countries from running afoul of a complex international regulatory labyrinth. Not surprisingly, their first instinct when it comes to protecting Citi's 200 million-plus account holders as well as the bank from expansive fines is to say "no" to any suggestion of something like an API that, in the course of exposing sensitive data, could put the bank at risk.

But 20 years from now, maybe 10, those attorneys could be out a job if they too don't realize how APIs can become the company's source of reinvention, enabling it to compete in a world where industries are being turned on their ears and the people writing the new rules are operating out of a garage in the middle of nowhere.

While several references to the attorneys were made from the stage and in private conversations, there were plenty of other folks who were invited to get a glimpse of the transformative power of APIs. Up and down the organizational chart, from the COO and CMO to branch managers to staffers from Citi's retail banking and credit card operations to its venture capital arm to internal developers and IT personnel, it was clear that Citi takes API-driven transformation so seriously that it has to muster the forces of the entire company behind the effort for it to succeed. As far as I could tell, about the only group not represented was the janitorial team. 

In fact, the company is so serious about the transformation that it has created departments and positions to lead it. One of my co-judges at the New York event was Lallande de Gravelle, Citi's head of business transformation for North America. Later, I was befriended by Patrick Wesonga, who is in Citi's digital acceleration group. According to Wesonga's LinkedIn profile, the "digital acceleration [group] is responsible for creating a new digital banking business model incorporating a community of Fintech developers around the world with Citi's tech capabilities."

2. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle: Pick your metaphor. The train has left the station. Pandora's box has been opened. It doesn't matter. Citi is officially past the point of no return. During the breaks and after-hours reception, I engaged with staffers from across the company and without provocation, hesitation or a script to read from, they universally and very animatedly said the same thing, which essentially went like this: "After this [hackathon], Citi is not just a changed company, I'm a different person."

Attending a hackathon for the first time can be a liberating experience for someone who has never seen the kind of innovation that emerges from the witches' brew of legacy-free, unencumbered developers and open APIs. Think about it. You don't have to be in a job for very long before you've been told a million times why something can't be done instead of how it could be done. Your senses are dulled, your imagination is wilted, and you don't feel as though you can be the change agent that you originally envisioned. 

In fairness, no one from Citi conveyed this sense of treadmill desperation to me. But never in my history of dealing with large corporate teams have I experienced such a universal renewal of purpose after a single day of observation. It's one thing to get all the stakeholders together in a way that exposes them to the potential of something uniquely transformative. It's another to deliver an experience so religious that pretty much everyone in attendance was destined to lose sleep that night, energized by the possibilities and motivated to do whatever is necessary to disrupt the company's status quo before the next Apple Pay comes along and does it for them.

Beaming over the hackathon's success during one of the breaks, Citi's Ruiz said, "It's done. I can honestly say that the post-hackathon Citi is a different company from the pre-hackathon Citi. Now I can go back to the cross-divisional stakeholders and say, 'You, you, you, and you: Remember we saw this thing [at the hackathon]? Well, now we're going to do it."

If only one of those stakeholders said "no" before, it could have killed a good idea. But post-hackathon, not only are those stakeholders somewhat obligated to say yes (no one wants to be a party-pooper), they are motivated to say yes because of how the possibilities truly energized them. 

Dawn Page, who runs Citi's mobile development team, was unequivocal as she told me there's no looking back. "These developers are customers of banks too," said Page. "They innovated based on how they'd want to see the customer experience improve. They not only brought us valuable customer insight, they taught us something about agility." Charging developers from the hackathon stage, Page elaborated: "Many of these solutions target the exact customer problems and pain points. You've demonstrated a way for us to accelerate innovation." 

3. This Was No Toe-Dip in the Water: Arguably, this point overlaps with my first point. But it's deserving of its own attention. While I'm not going to throw anyone under the bus, a lot of companies get a bit of API religion and go on to organize a hackathon to see what might become of it. In many cases, these will be relatively low-key, low-budget affairs. 

Not Citi. Somewhere, at some point, it was decided that if Citi was going to go the hackathon route, it was going to go big.

First there was a dual-city hackathon in Latin America (Bogota, Colombia, and Buenos Aires, Argentina). Then there was the three-city hackathon in the U.S. And the momentum coming out of both of those this year is carrying Citi right into its next round, which, according to Ruiz, is scheduled for Europe and the Middle East in the first quarter of 2015, with additional rounds in other parts of the world to follow every quarter thereafter.

The speed alone at which Citi is moving is breathtaking for such a large company. According to Ruiz, coming out of the Latin American round, the decision to push forward with a multicity hackathon in the U.S. wasn't made until September. By mid-October the initial submissions were in, and by November, Citi was holding the demo days.

Just planning for a three-city tour and moving a big team around the country alone is no small undertaking in such a short period of time. But Citi also spared very little expense on the production quality of the event.

Go to any conference presentation on how and why to run a hackathon, and the presenter will tell you that one of the reasons is branding. But to be honest, I've always wrestled with that justification. I never quite got it. At least not until attending Citi's hackathon. Sure, other brands (PayPal) go pretty big when it comes to hackathons. But that comes after years of building up their developer program. Citi is a 200-year-old company that, like pretty much every other bank, has very little experience with developer programs or hackathons and has a brand in need of a complete digital makeover.

But don't take my word for it (I'm not a Citi customer). Take it from Callahan, the COO who said he wants Citi to be the world's digital bank. He didn't say "one of the world's digital banks." He didn't say "the No. 1 digital bank." He said "the world's digital bank."

Now I get it: The venue. The staging. The swarm of Citi stakeholders from all over the world. The Web app that Citi built specifically to facilitate the multicity judging. The food. The drinks.

Citi had a message to send about its brand, its aspirations and its commitment to fulfill those aspirations. That message was for developers. It was for people like me. It was for the employees. It was for the executive team that needs the validation that if they truly back something that's big, that's important and that's about the reinvention of their company, the community will respond in kind. And that's exactly what Citi got. When I left that day, there was no doubt in my mind that Citi is serious about becoming the world's digital bank and that it's of such critical importance to the brand that the company knows there's only one way to go and that's to go big.

Not only did Citi go big, it did it with class too. One of the touchy areas when it comes to hackathons is what to offer as prizes. Few things rub me the wrong way as when an API provider decides to run a hackathon and then, for a prize, offers six months or a year's worth of free service — something that typically costs nothing to provide. To me, it's a selfish move that takes advantage of developers in hopes of creating some buzz. For companies that give cash prizes, as ProgrammableWeb did for its hackathon earlier this year, there's always that moment where you must decide how much to give. Usually, it involves a meeting, and the stakeholders are trying to balance the budget against the objectives. How much will it take to get some great developers and see some amazing innovation, but that won't break the bank?

Citi went big here too.

Originally, Citi announced that it would award $100,000 in cash prizes — $20,000 to each of five winners. But by the time the hackathon was over, Citi was so overwhelmed by the passion and innovation that the community responded with that it awarded a sixth developer an additional $20,000.

In a prepared statement that followed the selection of winners, CMO Cox said, "Developers submitted so many innovative solutions to Citi, and we were so impressed by our finalists' presentations, that we expanded the pool of awards for the U.S. challenge."

That alone sent a message that Citi is not investing in hackathons to get the most bang for the buck. Citi is truly in it to transform itself, and it's willing to go above and beyond the advertised call of duty when the developer community merits it.

4. Talent Acquisition: One of the most classic objectives of a hackathon is to find the kind of developer talent that can not only innovate on top of creative thinking, but that can do so at light speed. In the minds of Citi's executives, there's no time to lose. Finding talent doesn't just mean finding developers that the company can hire full time; finding talent also means finding consultancies that can help you to move your business forward. 

The truth is that no company is going to be able to boil the ocean itself, even if it onboards an army of developers (through hackathons or other means). It's actually smart to engage with consultancies outside of your company because they are far less encumbered by your legacy, are not drinking the same Kool-Aid from the company coolers that you are, and bring with them the perspective of other clients that they've worked with — perspective that may be valuable to you too. 

Whereas the organizers of a lot of hackathons prefer to keep the so-called pros out of the competition, Citi wanted them there. That's because Citi knew that it could very likely discover some development shops that really understood its business and that could fuel its goal of digital acceleration through creativity, innovation and speed. 

Citi was not bashful about this objective. According to Ruiz, one of the points of doing the hackathon was to create a network to do business with in the future. Early in the day at the New York event, Ruiz said, "Hopefully today we'll make new business connections and partners and you'll be doing business with Citi." As the demonstrations took place throughout the day, Citi executives openly remarked about the quality of the applications they were seeing, the speed with which they were "brought to market" and the likelihood of working with those developers on an ongoing basis. 

Following the close of the three-city competition, Cox said, "We are excited to work with many of the top teams of developers with the goal of bringing their solutions to market for Citi clients all over the world."

5. Visibility for Internal Rock Stars: If you have ever watched the show Undercover Boss, then you have some idea of what it means for employees who think they're invisible to the top brass to suddenly have an opportunity to show off how committed and passionate they are about what they do.

One of the great things about hackathons is how, like wikis, blogs and Undercover Boss, they can flatten the org chart in a way that puts executives in touch with the best ideas, talent and creativity, no matter where in the org chart it lives. Like many other big companies, Citi has a huge staff of IT personnel and developers located all over the world, any one of which could have been inspired by a hackathon. 

At Citi, one developer who took the bait was Gustavo Tolone. Tolone is a senior vice president at Citi. At first, I thought about how an SVP probably has enough visibility with the executive team and that he very likely didn't need any more. But then again, this is a bank, and like all banks, Citi has more VPs than most companies have employees — as many as 45,000, if you believe LinkedIn, half of which are SVPs. In other words, VPs and SVPs don't stand out quite so much at Citi (or other banks, for that matter).

But a hackathon can change that, and that's exactly what happened at Citi's hackathon.

The hackathon saw a lot of unique and innovative entries. But none of the ones that made it to the big stage attempted what Tolone did — to mash Citi's mocked API with Google Glass. Tolone took it a step further by making a video of the entire experience. It very viscerally demonstrated how interactive banking could just be a common part of a day in a life in a world where wearable technologies like Google Glass will be commonplace (and they will be, despite all the bad press that Google Glass has gotten recently).

It wasn't just about the code that Tolone wrote to bring together Citi's API with a wearable technology. It was also about how he used the medium of video to convey the value proposition in a future that Citi likely knows very little about. It reminded me of how Redg Snodgrass, who runs a wearables incubator and who also produces the Wearable World conference, was telling me about how certain financial companies were expressing interest in his efforts because they had no idea what a wearables future meant to them. They just knew it meant something — something potentially very disruptive. And so they want "in." And there at Citi's hackathon was Tolone painting a picture of a future that Citi, thanks to his prescient view, could very easily lead.

Citi played the video from the big stage. It's not available on YouTube, but it was an inspiration to everyone in the room.

Tolone, who works out of Citi's Fort Lauderdale, Florida, office, was on hand for the New York event. After I sought him out during the after-hours reception, I asked him if, previously, he had ever gotten this sort of rock star exposure to the rest of the company and the executives. His answer was "no." It was as if he was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, put on display for the entire company to see.

As is often said in corporate cultures, Tolone got some serious props. His future at Citi is secure and, more importantly, his moment in the spotlight will very likely inspire other developers hiding in the catacombs of Citi to come forward with their ideas, several of which will no doubt play a role in transforming the company.

I could keep going. But I won't. There are, of course, other ways that Citi nailed its hackathon. But these are easily the top five, and if other companies achieve only one of these five objectives with their hackathons, then they'll be ahead of the game. But if you're at a centuries-old company that needs to transform itself and must reach for the gold standard of hackathons, Citi's would not be a bad one to copy.

Be sure to read the next API Management article: Apigee Extends Edge API Analytics Depth and Scope