This October we hosted our second annual company-wide hackathon at Synergex. While our first attempt last year yielded better results than we expected, this year we outdid ourselves. From the quality of the projects to the logistical execution, this event was a home run. We’ve decided to adopt the hackathon as an annual tradition, because it’s proven to be the most successful team-bonding experience we’ve had, and it fits well with our corporate values of learning and initiative. If your company would like to join in on the fun, continue reading to find out more about our process, some of this year’s projects, and the things we’re still working to improve.
A week or two before the hackathon, we started with an optional brainstorming session, using a shared Google spreadsheet to capture all the project ideas that came out of the meeting. (I’ve found that sending an email with the sheet isn’t as effective for gathering input as getting everyone together. When there’s a dedicated time for this event, people show up and put their energy toward generating ideas. Plus, when one person explains their idea, it often sparks another from someone else.) We kept the sheet available for anyone to add ideas after the meeting as well.
The next event, a pitching session, took place about a week before the hackathon. The floor was open to anyone who wanted to lead a project from the ideas list or to suggest a new one. Participants raised their hands to express interest after each pitch. At the end of the session, we went through the list again and asked everyone to select their top project choice so we could start forming teams. This part was a little like herding cats, and not all projects that were pitched got picked up. However, we walked out of the room with teams decided.
A few days before the big event, we had a one-hour pre-hackathon workshop for teams to get together and plan. This was the time to download software, set up source control, and determine if any additional equipment was needed. By dedicating this preparation time, all teams could come into the hackathon ready to hack!
Our hackathon lasted roughly eight hours, plus time for meals and breaks. We started with breakfast and a quick presentation about logistics, and then the teams were off to start hacking. We largely left the teams alone, only announcing when lunch and snacks were available and giving a few time warnings before the clock ran out. Once hacking ended, the presentations and demos began. Each team had five minutes to share what they’d created.
After the presentations, everyone got to vote, and we asked that they not vote for their own team. Finally, we awarded prizes for the best hacks, and one team got to take possession of the coveted golden grabber arm until the next hackathon.
This Year’s Home Runs
We’d call this event a success regardless of what projects came out of it, simply due to the cross-team collaboration and energy that would be hard to replicate in any other way. BUT this year’s projects were also quite impressive, and we plan to implement several of them in whole or in part by the time next year’s event rolls around.
Team 1 worked on a proof of concept for online documentation for one of our products. This product previously had only paper manuals!
Team 2 put together a proposal for a corporate volunteer and giving program.
Team 3 researched a new collaboration tool and demonstrated how it could be set up for our company’s use.
Team 4 researched a new business line and created a commercial to promote the new business.
Team 5 created an API to access and print data from one of our productivity tools.
Team 6 made a proof of concept for a new UI for one of our products.
Team 7 had a plan for getting involved at local universities to increase our footprint in the greater Sacramento area. This included sponsoring their hackathons!
Base Hits and Foul Balls: Recommendations for Your Hackathon
You can do this too! Here are final dos and don’ts to consider when planning your own event:
- Do have fun! For 2019, we themed our event (baseball!) and had that dictate food, team names, shirt design, and awful puns in pretty much all presentations and this blog post.
- Don’t wait until the day of the hackathon to decide on project ideas.
- Do explain logistics, including time limits for presentations/demos, up front.
- Don’t wait until the end to take a group picture. Two years in a row, participants have left before we got the group photo. The start of the day might be a better time, or while votes are being counted.
- Do have the hackathon open to all employees. Hacks don’t have to be technical! Our best projects seem to come from teams with mixed professional backgrounds.
- Do have the WiFi password visible in all rooms, and test logistics prior to hack day.
- Don’t make voting overly complicated.
- Do host a fun social event after the hackathon. We’ve traditionally done this off site, but keeping it in the office allows teams to keep working on their project if they’d like to.
Reach out to the Synergex education team if you’d like some additional help getting started—or check out the Careers page on the Synergex website to join us for our 2020 hackathon!