With over a year and a half into our Agile journey here at Valpak, now was the right time for our first ever hackathon. So, hack we did!
Since we were indeed hackathon virgins, we sought advise from our sister company, Savings.com, who has been doing quarterly hackathons for quite some time now. Being a West coast startup, they are much closer to Silicon Valley than we are, so they obviously caught the hackathon bug a lot sooner. Our friends at Savings.com provided lots of insights from their past experiences but the most important takeaway was to make sure to “have fun”. So, fun we had!
The Build Up
The hackathon was announced about two weeks prior to the actual event date with a quick, one-hour information session hosted by our Software Engineering Director and our Architect. Since we sprint continuously in two week intervals around here, this allowed the Scrum teams enough advance notice to plan the event into their sprint capacity. The hackathon schedule looked something like this:
- Thursday 3:00pm – Kick Off
- Thursday 4:00pm through Monday 9:30am – Execution
- Monday 9:30am – Presentations / Demonstrations / Awards
People from both the technical and business side of the house were encouraged (strictly voluntary, of course) to self-organize teams (5 person limit) around an idea of their choosing. The only condition was that the idea be related in some way, shape, or form to a Valpak product or process. That said, being in the business of saving people money leaves a pretty broad spectrum of ideas to be had. A cork board was hung in a highly visible area as a seed board for ideas. Anyone, and I mean anyone, could come up with an idea and post it to the seed board in search of other team members to hack with them or to get the attention of a team seeking an idea. At last count, we had well over 25 ideas on the seed board (not to mention the ideas that people didn’t post because they wanted to save their thunder for the demonstration). Teams were asked to submit their team name, idea, and team member names by the day before the kick off. We ended up with 13 hackathon teams of 31 people comprised as follows:
- 5 of 13 teams were one-man teams
- 4 of 31 people were on two teams
- 4 of 31 people were from the business side (non-IT)
- 6 of the 13 teams worked across assigned Scrum team boundaries
The Kick Off
Coincidentally-on-purpose, we scheduled the hackathon kick off to directly follow a long-awaited IT organization cookout and kick ball game at the park. The teams were so amp’ed up from playing kick ball in the park that the kick off was extremely spirited, to say the least. So, kicked off we were … with kick ball! By 3:00pm that Thursday, we all piled into our largest conference room (body odor and all) and all 13 teams got up one by one to introduce their team and describe their idea. We had ideas running the gamut from utilities to help us save time to widgets and apps that will amaze customers to an entirely new platform architecture using up and coming technologies.
Hacking, Hacking, Hacking
Immediately following the kick off, teams began hacking away at their ideas. So, hacking we did! Teams had from about 4:00pm Thursday to 9:30am Monday to get as far along as possible on their ideas (teams could and did hack through the weekend if they chose too). Teams were also able to work wherever they chose during the hackathon, office, home, a pub, wherever. During the hacking period, the Software Engineering Director and the Architect made rounds to keep teams “unstuck” (that was another wise tip from our Savings.com pals). Also, several of us leaders made sure that the teams were well fed and hydrated with everything from Krispy Kreme to pizzas to Red Bull and of course we had lots of leftovers from the cook out too.
Show & Tell
Monday morning rolls around and all 13 teams … Vicious & Delicious, Darth Vatr, A-Hacker, and so on … take their turn at the podium to demonstrate what they accomplished to a panel of judges and a room packed full of eager stakeholders. The judges were the President of Cox Target Media / Valpak, the CIO (my boss), the Digital Innovation Director, and the Software Engineering Director. The judges awarded trophies for Best Innovation, Ready For Primetime, and Nice Try. Everyone was absolutely blown away! All 13 ideas were viable and most teams achieved what they set out to accomplish, and in such a short time frame too.
A Look Back
As I look back on our first ever hackathon experience, I can’t help but think that so much of this was made possible by Agile … our culture, our mindset, our values. Under the old waterfall world, we would have struggled to self-organize around a thing like a hackathon, not to mention the nightmare logistics of disrupting multiple conflicting Gantt schedules with mobs of anxious stakeholders waiting at the end of a death march. In the old days. we were used to being told what to do by a document or by management. Self-organization didn’t come easy to us back then. We were waterfall zombies! We didn’t have the capacity to dream up new ideas and we certainly didn’t have the autonomy to hack away at them. The hackathon was our opportunity to truly practice our new found autonomy and that we did…. people picked who they worked with, what they worked on, when they worked, where they worked, and how they worked. Oh the times they have changed!
While there are some things that we might change the next go round, like not scheduling over Mother’s Day weekend or maybe mandatory deodorant after kick ball, what we we did was hugely successful and ultimately fun too. I, for one, can’t wait for the next one!
May 14th, 2013 at 9:38 pm
That is so cool. Like an internal Startup Weekend or Bar Camp, right? How many of the ideas will lead to a new product or improvement on an existing product?
May 15th, 2013 at 3:12 pm
Exactly, Jay. I’d say about 70% of the ideas will lead to a new or improved product. Not bad for our first attempt.
May 18th, 2013 at 5:53 am
I get the idea of self-organisation but there can be a risk that non-programmers on a hackathon team end up without much to do while their programmer buddies are off enjoying themselves cutting code. Did this happen at all for your teams, what prep could one do to minimise it happening?
May 20th, 2013 at 12:49 pm
While the programmers are programming the non-programmers are busy contributing to the thought process or testing what gets built.
May 20th, 2013 at 1:21 pm
The story of our hackathon made it’s way into the Tampa Bay Business Journal!