Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Running Our Internal Hackathon

For over a year now one of the best responsibilities I've had at work is to organize internal hackathons for our development team. Recently I told some peers how gratifying it has been to run these events. Some of them asked for more information as they consider introducing a similar event at their own shop.

Ours is a two day event where staff are encouraged to be creative, explore new technologies, work with different folks than they would normally, and have fun. We try to have it be a 100% participation event, but that can be tough with vacations and the like.  We encourage team members who are concerned about a deadline or other conflicting priority to talk to their manager.  We really want to make space for everyone to participate and the managers will attempt to move mountains to encourage participation.  Our event is an exhibition format, not a competition.  The opportunity to stretch, explore and showcase their talents has (so far) been enough of a reward that we've not felt the need to have prizes, judging, etc.

First thing on Day 1 there is an event kick-off meeting.  The point of the kick-off is to build excitement and hit a few points about logistics like food, how we will respond to any production issue that may come up during the event, etc. We also take that opportunity to remind folks about some of the ground rules, and any last minute announcements.  It's worth mentioning that teams can start as early as they like on Day 1, including midnight if they choose, but the kick-off is the official start.

After the kick-off the teams disperse to work on their projects and don't have to come together again until the afternoon of Day 2 for the presentations.  We only expect people to work business hours but they are welcome to stay late or even stay over if that suits them.  We set up a couple of cots in our game room for anyone who decides to stay, or just needs a nap.  We bring in food for the participants, too.  Lunch and snacks on Day 1.  Breakfast, lunch and snacks on Day 2.

We start the presentations around 2:30 on Day 2. Because the event is an exhibition we ask the teams to touch on three questions during their presentations:
  • What were you trying to do?
  • How did you approach the problem?
  • What did you learn?
We've tried two formats for the presentations; "lightning talks" and "science fair."  The first three events we did as "lightning talks" with each team coming up to the projector and PA to showcase their project.  This had the benefit of everyone getting the chance to see each project.  Additionally, we have some remote staff who wanted to see the presentations so we used GoToMeeting to enable that (which had the added benefit of making it something I could easily record).  The down side to this format is it feels long. Additionally, each team could only get 5 minutes to present.  We had to fit all the presentations within a two hour window. Many teams found that to be a challenge. 

With our most recent event we switched to a "science fair" format where everyone would go visit each team's space and hear the presentation.  The advantage to this approach turned out to be the presentations were much more interactive and folks could spend as much, or as little, time as they wanted with each project.  There were a few down sides. A team's members would have to take shifts to visit other projects; someone had to stay behind to demo the team project. This lead to not everyone seeing every project. Remote staff couldn't participate in real time and will have to rely on videos of each team presentation I made using my phone.

The other thing the new format lacked was a clear end of the event.  I think we all missed that and will introduce a way to punctuate the event next time.  Based on the initial feedback, though, the "science fair" format was clearly preferred by everyone involved.

Project Ideas
Even though the event is not a competition we do have some ground rules about the projects.  People pitching a project idea need to have a reasonable answer for at least one of the following:
  • How does this benefit the company?
  • How does this benefit your Team?
  • How does this benefit your dev life/career in our shop?
The interpretation of "reasonable answer" is pretty flexible, but the staff has really respected the spirit of these guidelines.

Once someone has a project they would like to propose they enter it in a shared spreadsheet.  We ask people who are adding a project proposal to list themselves as the "Team Leader/Idea Person." That way other people can talk to them about joining the team. Plus, if they have a good idea but don't want to be the "leader" they can work out roles with folks who want to join the team. Teams can be as small as or as big as their idea requires. We discourage people from working solo because part of this is to encourage people to build relationships across the departments who are participating.

The project sign up spreadsheet serves a few other uses. I use it to identify which teams are large enough to assign a conference room. We book all the conference rooms on our floor for the duration of the event so teams have a dedicated space to work on their project. Bigger teams get the bigger conference rooms.  The spreadsheet also allows me to reach out to staff who haven't picked a project so I can facilitate a match or identify folks who are opting out of the event for whatever reason.

Before our most recent event I also set up a survey in Google Drive so people could be included in the head count for the food order.  Our wonderful admin, Meg, needs to order the meals at least a week before the event. Locking in how many people are eating each meal prevents us from ordering too much (we had a fair amount go to waste the prior event when few people stayed for dinner).  The survey also allowed us to solicit information about food allergies or other dietary restrictions that would inform the food order.

Communications during the event, though, are intentionally low tech. Any announcements or group communications are done by sneaker-net.  I go room to room to let each team know when food is available, when the presentation deadline is approaching and anything else that needs sharing. One of the points I make in the event kick-off is that participants should refrain from checking email so they don't get pulled into the normal, daily activity of the business.  Management, from the CEO down, has made the investment in these two days by green-lighting the event - we don't want to squander that opportunity.

Finally, another survey is sent out a few days after the event to ask what went well, what could have gone better and what, if anything, should change.  This is important to inform how we plan the next event.  For example, the change to the presentation format came from a post-event survey.

After running four of these events I believe we've more or less got the process of organizing the event worked out.  The participants, too, seem to be getting the rhythm and sizing their projects to something that can be accomplished in the time frame of the event.  The first few events had teams that were over ambitious and had incomplete projects - which we were OK with as long as they had a good answer to "What did you learn?" :-)

If you're considering organizing an internal hackathon they can be a wonderful opportunity for your team to do a deep dive on some technology, build relationships, and maybe even incubate a new business opportunity.