Practicing Internal Hackathons with Your Dedicated Software Development Team
21 December 202123 November 2020 | Software
80% of Fortune 100 companies conduct hackathons to drive innovation. What began years ago as coder-centric competitions, has evolved into a cross-functional mainstream business practice for building culture and stimulating innovation.
This article is about “internal” hackathons that include your dedicated software development team, and how these hackathons create an environment where collaboration, creativity, and risk-taking come together to accelerate problem-solving and innovation. We tell the story of a hackathon event that we co-developed with our client to achieve some of those key benefits that organizations strive for when designing their own internal hackathons.
Let’s plan a 2-day hackathon!
That was the message a U.S. based client gave us after a long string of intense deliveries. Our client thought it’s time for a change of pace. With a Fortech team of 22 dedicated software developers delivering technology solutions on four separate projects, and operating an intense delivery schedule, we’ve always been focused on the next release. We too felt a hackathon would be a healthy and invigorating change!
Table of Contents
- Why an Internal Hackathon?
- Setting Hackathon Objectives for the Dedicated Software Development Team
- Connecting Development Teams More to the Business
- Fostering Greater Morale and Teamwork
- Enabling Creativity and Innovation
- How the Client and Dedicated Software Development Team Managed the Hackathon
- Hackathons as Methodology for Digital Transformation
Why an Internal Hackathon?
Hackathons are often organized to seek engagement with developers external to their organization. And they typically center on specific themes, for example improving customer experience or engaging new technology ecosystems.
Internal hackathons are different. They involve people who already work in the business. Internal hackathons favor more focus on specific “internal” challenges ranging from cost savings through automation, improving operational workflows, and resolving customer support issues. Moreover, internal hackathons can also help re-energize people and transform a company’s culture.
As expressed in the Harvard Business Review’s Hackathons Aren’t Just for Coders, a change of pace from the day-to-day routine can invigorate and inspire staff. And this break in routine actually helps employees think differently and innovate.
By stepping out of our normal roles, and interacting with different colleagues in unfamiliar ways, participants loosen up, think more creatively, and learn to collaborate better.
In organizations’ ever stride towards building culture and stimulating innovation, internal hackathons have become widespread. According to HackerEarth’s Guide to organizing a successful hackathon, private company hackathons account for about 50% of all hackathons conducted.
Setting Hackathon Objectives for the Dedicated Software Development Team
We brainstormed with our client to formulate three key drivers to our hackathon:
(1) connecting the development teams more to the business,
(2) fostering greater morale and teamwork, and
(3) enabling creativity and innovation to surface in a safe environment.
Connecting Development Teams More to the Business
Even though Fortech’s team is geographically remote from our client’s locations, the first objective of connecting our teams more to the business was not a challenge. Our client produces equipment that everyone on the team has first-hand experience with. Our creative work involved considering how to connect the dots between our own experience, our work in developing our client’s products, and the behavior of the product’s target market.
Fostering Greater Morale and Teamwork
Towards the second objective of boosting morale and encouraging greater team collaboration, the change of pace was a big help. The morale boost came naturally as participants loosened up and practiced creative brainstorming, beginning with the first phase of the hackathon – to determine what we’d actually work on. Participants self-organized into teams and were encouraged to collaborate with those whom they had not previously worked with.
Enabling Creativity and Innovation
And finally, the last objective of enabling creativity and innovation began by creating some space to enable risk-taking.
“We wanted to pause from the usual focus on the product backlog, where we carefully managed risk. Quite the contrary, for the hackathon we sought to create an atmosphere that even encouraged risk-taking – space to think differently. We were very supportive of that,” said Mihai, Fortech’s Delivery Manager. “The worst thing that can happen is you had some fun!”
It helped too that previously in the course of our work on the product, some members of the dedicated software development team had already formulated ideas on how to make improvements. Perhaps this is one edge that internal hackathons have over external hackathons. Participants have that rare opportunity to manifest visionary concepts for products they are already familiar with.
Another edge for internal hackathons is that innovation can be realized on the technical level, in the code, for example in advancing software or cloud architecture. The team operates on this level daily and naturally sees opportunities to innovate with new technologies. Several ideas came forward at this level.
How the Client and Dedicated Software Development Team Managed the Hackathon
While many hackathons require delivering functioning usable software or hardware products by the end of the event, we didn’t want that limitation. We felt that good ideas can also come in other packages. In addition to working prototypes, we also welcomed UI/UX designs, writing business requirements, and designing new architectures.
Being on different continents, our hackathon would need to be a virtual event. And because of the pandemic, the whole dedicated software development team would participate remotely. We chose a Thursday and Friday to enable weekend extensions, if desired.
Each completed project was grouped into “new features” versus “improvements.” Some projects targeted technology innovations, such as an improved database structure. While others were more feature oriented, like using Siri to integrate voice commands.
A key practice for internal hackathons is to offer participants the opportunity to gain visibility across the organization. We organized the final presentation accordingly. Our client invited fellow team mates as well as internal department heads and product managers who were not directly engaged with Fortech’s teams. We also invited our C-Level, managing VPs, and client-related staff. This added exposure and networking opportunity, with people who they’d otherwise not have the opportunity to meet, was a big boost. And it contributed to a sense of reward for their hackathon efforts.
It was easy to feel more connected to the client’s business and culture, as the energy was very positive and inclusive. Everyone appreciated the change of pace and refreshing content and presentations. And although superfluous, we were delighted to see that some of the demos brought forward were added as feature additions to the product, to be later implemented.
Hackathons as Methodology for Digital Transformation
At Fortech we are deeply engaged in the digital transformation of our clients. We plan, execute, and support many critical digital initiatives. There’s no question that careful, deliberate planning and a focus on quality are critical to the success of these initiatives. Yet, the phenomenon of hackathons have earned a place in the practice of digital transformation especially for large organizations.
As McKinsey expressed in Demystifying the hackathon, these events can be adapted to support and even accelerate digital transformation initiatives. Particularly for large organizations, internal hackathons can be more about transforming old processes and ways of working, than developing new products. Hackathons can be a valuable tool for fostering and accelerating organizational change, whether that’s technology oriented or not.
At Fortech, we’ve learned from many years of practicing Agile that ceremonies, such as Agile reviews and retrospectives, serve to improve work outcomes and the collaboration between all members of the dedicated software development team gets better. Hackathons can be considered a kind of “epic ceremony”, a coordinated series of events that serve to disrupt participants from the normal course of work. They help us get out of our routines and engage in a unique atmosphere where collaboration, creativity, and risk-taking come together to accelerate problem-solving and innovation.
Who knew years ago that hackathons would become a mainstream business practice? We look forward to advancing our practice of hackathons to help our clients drive technology innovation and accelerate their digital transformation.Fortech