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We Run Quarterly Hackathons

We Run Quarterly Hackathons

The last week of the quarter is special. Not because we’re gathering data and admiring our growth (though we do that too). We take a week out of every quarter to do an internal hackathon.

We call it “Hackerman”, inspired by Kung Fury, but that name might not last…

What Does an Internal Hackathon Look Like?

First off, since it’s internal, we are literally all on the same team. Our hackathons aren’t competitions. They are an opportunity to take a break from our regular work while still producing something of value.

We start a few weeks in advance by setting up a Confluence page where team members can nominate projects. There is no policy restricting ideas that can be part of the hackathon. Projects may include:

  • Contributing to an external Open Source project
  • Building a pet feature
  • Dealing with a bit of technical debt that’s been nagging you
  • Creating a Proof of Concept for a new app
  • Learning a new skill

Once the list has been finalized, team members say which projects they’re interested in working on. We may select one project to work on together, or we may break into small groups, or even work on individual projects.

Rituals

The week starts with a kick-off meeting.  Everyone confirms that they have finalized (committed) what they were working on before, then we define the scope of the hackathon project(s) and everyone’s role. First tasks are identified so we can get started quickly.

After the initial meeting, we may conduct daily check-ins to ensure everyone stays focused. If we're working on multiple projects, each team works on their own schedule, organized to meet their needs.

Hackerman ends with a celebration. During our usual Friday meeting, we show what we managed to accomplish. Everyone is allotted an amount of money to spend on takeout and encouraged to share photos of their food in Slack.

Why a Week-long Event

At HeroCoders we want to encourage innovation, and we want to have fun working together. We tried different approaches in the past – like 20% time for personal projects. But we found it was hard to detach from the daily tasks and no one actively used their 20% time allotment. That approach didn’t encourage cooperation and cross-team bonding either. As we typically have two teams working on different projects, we wanted to find a way everyone could work together.

Hence we come up with the idea of running a week-long event. It’s enough time for one person, or a team,  to accomplish something tangible. Everyone participating at the same time means we can all cooperate, brainstorm and enjoy the common experience of having a break from our “regular” work.

Costs and Benefits

The celebratory treats at the end are the only extra expenses, but it’s fair to ask if taking team members off of their “real” work for a week is a prudent business decision. We believe it is. These diversions are investments, in our employees (both in terms of teamwork and skill-building); in our current products when the time is used toward tackling technical debt; and in our future when we use the time to create new features or products.

Hackathons are refreshing because they shake up the normal dynamic. Breaking out of our typical work patterns allows team members to take on different roles and discover new strengths. Time pressure makes everyone work with new enthusiasm.

The synergy unleashed by the hackathon carries forward when we return to our regular work. It is a tool that helps fight burnout and stimulate creativity. And along with the myriad of ways it benefits teamwork, hackathons can also be the place where great new apps get started.

Our first two hackathons resulted in a new app - Backlog Pro, which we released to the Marketplace in February. We used the first one to build a proof of concepts and the second one to make it ready for production. We now have an MVP which we can validate and improve upon. Not bad for two week’s work. We also tackled some technical debt, investigated different ideas, and generally improved our products.

So we are sticking to quarterly events and look forward to the next one  

Jennifer Choban
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