I want to take you back about twelve months, so that I can set the scene for you. My team is still dealing with the fallout from a merger that forced together two very different tech stacks and teams that don’t know each other. On top of that we are still in the middle of what turns out to be a two-year mega project that has sucked time and energy from almost everyone.
The mood is, well, it’s not great.
Now, I’ll say this up front, I don’t profess to be an inspirational leader or cultural guru. What I do know is that I work with some of the smartest people I have ever met and I wanted to do two things:
- Try to help take our focus off the hard eighteen months or so we had gone through as a group, and
- Most importantly for me: show what we were capable of as a team!
It has always been obvious to me that the people on our team were capable of creating great things, so when I sat and thought about it, the obvious thing to try was a hackathon. I read several articles but they mostly pertained to hackathons that were public hack days arranged by a third party, so I decided that I was going to wing it and run a hackathon the way I thought it should be run.
As with any new idea, the first attempt at this was… let’s just say it left room for improvement. I struggled to get buy in from my colleagues, I organised it completely by myself which was stressful, and much of the feedback was “constructive”.
All that being said, attempt number one achieved most of what I wanted it to. It got our team away from their desks, away from the time constraints of user stories, and gave them the freedom to work on whatever they wanted. I also managed to convince some of our new colleagues from Hammersmith to join us – delighted!
Most importantly for me was the fact that I learned. I got to hear what people liked and disliked. I got to see what ideas worked and what annoyed people (food, always get the food right!), and this helped guide how I would approach the next one.
So, on to attempt number two, the difficult second album hackathon…
I wanted this one to be bigger and better and to do that I realised that I needed a team. It’s worth noting that by this time our department had expanded in both size and location. We obviously wanted to include the new members of our team from Porto. I enlisted the help of some enthusiastic colleagues and we started putting our plans together for the second hackathon.
In the first hackathon, I chose the theme (it was ‘Speed’, thanks for asking!) but for the second one we thought it would be a good idea to let the people involved suggest and then vote for the theme. Surprisingly, the clear winner was ‘no theme’ – people wanted freedom!
We strongly encouraged teams to include our new colleagues in Porto this time around and we were delighted to see that several Dublin-based people flew to Porto to form teams there which was a huge win for us.
From a collaboration perspective, this worked really well. We managed to keep a constant connection between the teams in Dublin and Porto by having a constant video conference running for the two days which allowed both locations to see what was happening.
Another big change was having a judging panel. The first time around the judges consisted of our head of department and me. For our second hackathon, we invited people from around the business to get involved. This was one of the biggest successes as our team got to show off what they could actually do and the judging panel were amazed at some of the finished products the teams created in just two days.
Personally, the second hackathon was far more successful. We had greater involvement in terms of the number of people and this led to more awesome ideas. This was really turning into something. People at the end of this one were saying things like “For the next one what you should do is…” or “I think what I’ll do differently next time is…”. This was a real win for us as it proved that our team was beginning to see the value in hackathons.
This brings us to our most recent, our biggest, and without a doubt our most successful hackathon yet. For #3 it really was go big or go home. We managed to convince a bunch of teams from a related department to join in we based this one in Porto rather than Dublin.
We approached this one slightly differently. First of all, I intentionally didn’t want to take the lead as I wanted to give others the chance to gain some experience in putting it together. The team in our Porto office took up the challenge and they absolutely delivered. They took care of everything from the venue, to the t-shirts, the food, the energy drinks, and what seemed like an unending supply of Portuguese beer in the evening.
The team also changed the timeline for this one. Our first hackathon ran for one day, from morning to evening and our second was over two days during office hours. For #3, the team wanted to go for twenty-four hours straight!
Honestly, I was sceptical. I wasn’t sure if any of the teams would be willing to work around the clock. How wrong I was! Apart from a few hours in the absolute dead of night, when sleep got the better of even the most dedicated people, teams were there the whole time. I personally dozed off at about three in the morning but I walked out of a room that contained teams still furiously working on their chosen projects.
When morning rolled around there were some frazzled faces in the room but there were also some incredible projects that had either been completed or brought to the point where they could prove out their initial concept. We had judges from across the business, including the Porto Leadership Team, so again the hackers got to show off their skills to a diverse audience.
The winning team from Hackathon #3 represented something very special for me. Yes, it represented what I originally wanted from all this in that we got to demonstrate what we could achieve by giving people time and freedom. Yes, the finished article was an incredibly well thought out product that could be of huge benefit to the company.
However, the biggest positive that came from this team winning was something else. This team consisted of people who, for the most part, had never even spoken to each other before the hackathon – never mind worked together. This showed me that by taking people out of their normal environment, allowing them to interact with people from other parts of the business, and giving them time and freedom, we could encourage new and innovative thought that will really benefit our organisation and allow teams and individuals to stand out and be recognised.
Hang on, this isn’t why I started this, right? Well, not strictly, but – honestly – I couldn’t be happier with how our hackathons have evolved. They started out with me trying to lighten the mood after our team went through a tough time and have now evolved into a forum for collaboration and original thought that our whole team looks forward to and our organisation can benefit from.
If this is something you haven’t yet tried with your teams then I highly recommend trying one soon. My advice is to start pragmatically, get something together rather than waiting for it to be perfect, and listen to the feedback you get. This will let you iterate and improve very quickly – just like software engineering. And, if nothing else, please put some thought into the food!
P.S. This is a picture of everyone who contributed or participated in the last hackathon!