Tech teams at all companies can probably relate to this predicament: as you work to execute your company’s product roadmap, the urgency of reaching a deadline or constraints of working on the current business problems can dampen your engineers’ creativity and exploration of new technologies.
As a CTO, it’s my mission to be sure we meet the business needs of our company. But as the leader of a team of rockstar engineers, it’s also my mission to keep them challenged and excited by the work at hand. I want to give them an opportunity to work on the latest tech, make their cool ideas a reality, and have some fun together. What’s the answer to each of these desires? The hackathon!
We recently held a successful hackathon and I wanted to share our process with other tech teams in case you’re inspired to conduct one of your own. Here are the steps we followed to run our hackathon:
The planning stage:
1. Pick a theme
Honing in on the right theme or focus for the hackathon is crucial. At Shortlist, our engineers are very curious about new technology and have a high learning velocity. Experimenting with emerging technologies is a great way for engineers to sharpen their skills and gain the thrill of learning something new.
With this in mind, we came up with the theme of “Solving business problems that aren’t part of the immediate roadmap, using any tech of your choice.”
This theme ensures that:
– The solutions developed by the teams can still be used by the business if approved
– Engineers get own the project end-to-end, from idea to research to production
– The team gets to use the latest tech or cool and crazy ideas to solve a problem, which otherwise may not be pragmatic for a real-time application
2. Involve everyone in the preparation
We sent out a survey to the team to get their feedback on important components of the hackathon, like the duration, timing and more ideas. This helped everyone feel invested and is how the excitement starts to build up.
3. Prepare the rules of the hackathon
This can include rules around not touching production applications, checking in code to master branches, choking the production databases and more. The last thing we want out of the hackathon is a P1 impacting our users.
4. Select judges
It’s a great idea to involve your business teams here to showcase the creativity and talent of the tech team to the rest of the company. We sent out a note to our Leadership team asking for volunteer judges, and our “Jury” included our CEO, Managing Director of India, Business Head of Africa, India Sales head, Product Director and Director of Strategic Initiatives.
You could also open it up to the entire company and make the presentation day more of a social event, or invite prospective employees that you are recruiting to your engineering team to attend as a way to show off the fun culture of your tech team.
7. Settle the logistics
Make sure the dates of the hackathon aren’t impacting release schedules. We started the hackathon right after our sprint release (Wednesday) and blocked Thursday and Friday for the hackathon. To make it more fun, we planned a Go-Karting event and dinner after the hackathon to unwind and celebrate.
There are a few things you can do to be sure that the teams are at their peak performance during the hackathon. Start the hackathon as on a normal working day, and not too early in the morning. Since we expected engineers to be working until late night (or early morning), it’s important to have their normal sleep routine and be ready to rock the next day. Based on the survey, we started the hackathon on Thursday morning around 10 am and scheduled to demo the final products on Friday at 4 pm giving them around 30 hours of time to develop solutions.
We also provided lots of snacks during the hackathon to keep up everyone’s energy!
5. Create teams
Mix and match your engineers into teams that are different than the ones they typically work in. It’s a great experience for them to work with someone new, and it may even reveal unexpected synergies and give you new ideas on ways to form teams moving forward.
6. Select the problem statements for each team to solve
There are a variety of ways to approach this – while some hackathons select a single problem and have every team come up with unique solutions, but we did it differently. Remember, we are trying to solve business problems not done via roadmap! We came up with four different problem statements, one for each team.
8. Decide on criteria and create a scorecard
Come up with clear instructions to evaluate the hackathon. Share the same with participating teams and jury. Here’s a snapshot of the scorecard for the hackathon which was shared with the judges.
During the Hackathon
After all the preparation and planning, the Big Day has arrived. Kick-off the day by sharing the new teams, problem statements, rules, winning criteria, logistics and most importantly, the motivation. The whole team was super excited about the problem statements, their new teams and an opportunity to show off their business knowledge and problem-solving skills.
While we had four teams with the front end, backend and QA engineers, we also had some common players across the teams. Product Manager, Designer, DevOps engineer were all around to help any teams with relevant work to accelerate their solutions. I did a 3-hour check-in with each team to ensure they aren’t stuck and are moving in the right direction all the while cheering them on.
I strongly encouraged every team to spend the first 1-2 hours towards brainstorming ideas and planning the execution before diving straight into coding. After the lunch break, everyone was excited to start their work.
All the teams were so exhausted with hardly any sleep, but the excitement of demo time kept them awake and enthusiastic. Since the Shortlist team is spread across three offices, we held the presentation via Zoom conference. Each team had 12 minutes to demo their problem statement, solution and answer questions from the panel. As we had four teams, we gave ourselves 90 minutes for the complete demo session. It was an amazing experience for the panel and the tech team as every solution came out to be very innovative and valuable. On a scale of 5, final scores had a very narrow gap of hundredth decimal points ranging from 4.28 to 4.32.
The solutions in the hackathon included building a two-way instant messenger, proctoring using video and screen capture, Chrome plugin for sourcing candidates from external job boards and finally, an amazon skill that enabled our business users to ask Alexa about any data related question across each of our offices. All of these were out-of-the-box ideas for the kind of business problems that were given to the teams.
While we achieved everything we intended to with the hackathon, I am thrilled to share the unexpected surprises that arose from the whole process. As each team was struggling to come up with their own solution, everyone was ready to help the other teams where possible. This showed the amount of respect they have for other team members during the competition.
Additionally, when we announced the winner, the winning team wanted to pass on the prize to the next team as they believed the challenge from other teams were, even more, higher and they deserved it! With the smart and thoughtful gestures of the team members, everyone became a winner making it a winning hackathon.
After a week of the hackathon completion, our first solution was pushed to production with minimal extra effort and we are able to see tremendous value. Yes, the tech team and business team were both excited to conduct more of these hackathons and we are looking forward to the next one soon!