Hacking our way to innovation

Most digital agencies are looking for ways to not only stay relevant in the marketplace but also to inspire their teams to take risks and innovate. Recently we held an internal “Hackathon” to explore what would happen when let staff run a bit wild with their imagination and skills.

The outcome was geekily glorious.

I sat down with Jared Schwartz, our VP of strategic innovation, and Thomas Taylor, the software engineer who organized the event, to learn more about what happened during those two days.

Eve:
Ok, first off, what is a Hackathon?

thomasThomas:
A Hackathon is basically a way to rapidly prototype something with a team – software people or marketing people or project management people. After there is a team, you figure out what you want to work on, you spend a chunk of time working through it, and the end product is whatever you can achieve in that period of time.

I was at a UX conference and heard a speaker talk about how her team held a Hackathon to work out some top-secret project. They actually ended up with a viable product that they could expand on it at a future date and I thought it would be cool to see how it could work for us.

jaredJared:
When Thomas came to me about doing an internal Beaconfire Hackathon, I thought it was a great idea. I was excited about exploring ways to quickly problem solve without the constraints of a more involved process. As a consulting agency, we rarely have the chance to work on undefined projects like that, so a Hackathon was a great format to try because it removes many exterior challenges. We could just bring people together, pick a problem we wanted to solve and then collaborate to keep things moving… fast.

 

Thomas:
Any barriers that are part of a usual project were all torn down because the key wasn’t to accomplish something perfectly. It was to move rapidly towards an objective.

Jared:
So, I asked Thomas to come back with logistically how we’re going to do this and some ideas for projects to work on. We wanted to know what it would take of people’s staff time and if there were some tech problems bubbling out there that people wanted to solve. So he went and did both and we felt pretty comfortable about moving forward.

Thomas:
Initially the idea was for the Hackathon to be a continuous process – most are usually 10, 18, 24 hours.  However, to make it a little easier on the participants, we decided to break it up into 2 separate 8 hr days –Friday and Saturday. Because we have such a diverse set of people here I didn’t think the 24-hour drink coffee, Code Red, the Monster energy drinks was going to work. We’d all stroke out or have aneurysms or something! Ideally, we were striving for balance and comfort versus getting something done in equal amount of time.  When we started to see the number of great ideas being proposed, we knew this could work.

I think we got to the point where we needed to get to which was, “Yes, we can do this.”

Eve:
How did you gather the ideas?

Thomas:
So we initially sent out an email to the whole staff, saying hey everybody do you have any ideas about products we could dig into during the Hackathon. We invited anyone interested to come to a meeting and vote on all the ideas – I think we had 10 or 11! So each person did a 5-minute pitch for their idea, everyone sticker voted on the ones they thought would be cool to work on, and we nailed down 3 finalists based on that.

Jared:
Then on the day of the Hackathon itself, we let the hackers to pick between the 3 finalist projects. It was partly what they wanted to work on and partly a condition of who showed up to hack that Friday. There was one project that I think was really interesting, one of the marketing projects, but the team of hackers who showed up were very heavy tech sided didn’t make sense for the team.

Eve:
Which idea did they decide on?

Thomas:
A real time social media aggregator. We wanted to take multiple fields based on search terms from social media channels – whether they were hashtags or just a post from someone – and cache them local to the web server. Then, we’d display a customized, well designed feed to the front end user, the client.

Jared:
A lot of these platforms have feed displays, but you can’t integrate them with each other. They also look kind of clunky so this new tool would give us more flexibility about how we could customize the integrated display. There are other tools that do this now, but the costs were a bit prohibitive for our clients so we wanted to see what we could develop to make this functionality more accessible for them.

Thomas:
We planned a couple different views of the feed too. We didn’t have one fixed view. So now your plain old Twitter feed reads and rows of items. There was a card layout like Pinterest type of tiles and a had the basic Twitter-type view. We also had a third advanced detailed view that was more information heavy. We were actually able to develop 2 of those views within the time we had.

Jared:
I think we got to the point where we needed to get to which is, “Yes, we can do this.” It’s not a finished product but it’s far enough along. So if we’re working with one of our clients wants to present their social channels interesting way, we now know that we can.

Eve:
So who participated?

Thomas:
We had 10 staff members total and I’d say a good 60, 70% were tech people.  Then we had a front-end person, a visual designer, and a UX consultant.

We were planning to build this project one way, uncovered a roadblock and quickly said, “This isn’t going to work, let’s go in a slightly different direction.” It wasn’t a whole pivot, it was like a 30-degree turn, but we were able to adjust quickly as a team. It was cool to see how seamlessly that happened.

Eve:
How did you structure your time during the 2 days?

Thomas:
There was no plan going in. The 1st day was mainly UX sketching and the tech team getting their environment set up which we were able to do very quickly. Anthony, one our tech leads, was really the hero of the Hackathon. Very early he came up with a way to constructing a shared environment that would be like a singular server running but it very easy to scale and mock up rapidly as a group.

Eve:
Did you have  status meetings?

Thomas:
We had check-ins. There were very light stand ups. “Hey what’s everybody doing?” Made sure everyone was moving. We did that maybe every 1 or 2 hours. That’s the most we could do because I was playing both PM and tech.

Jared:
I think next time, if there’s a need to get to a more finished final product it would be helpful to have a PM and more structured time but that wasn’t what we were driving at here. The informal, every couple of hours check-in was enough to keep us moving and make everybody knew what they were doing.

Eve:
How do you think the time constraint and limited staff impacted the final outcome? What other challenges did you face?

Thomas:
Yes, I think it improved the work because we were similarly focused on one task. Typically we break up projects in different phases to different people. That leaves people doing lots of small things on different projects at the same time. But when you had everybody in the room at the same time, they were collaborating and making progress together.

Jared:
The set up was easy to get the team working in that kind of an environment but then the UX research required us to pivot. We were planning to build this project one way, uncovered a roadblock and quickly said, “This isn’t going to work, let’s go in a slightly different direction.” It wasn’t a whole pivot, it was like a 30-degree turn, but we were able to adjust quickly as a team. It was cool to see how seamlessly that happened.

It was a pretty big investment of non-client time for a good number of staff, and there was never any doubt [among senior leadership] about whether it was worth doing.  Two of the partners even brought us lunch on Saturday to cheer us on!

Eve:
What surprised you most about the Hackathon?

Jared:
I was surprised at how quickly everybody was busy. That was one of my concerns, having a challenge with enough meat for everybody to sink their teeth into.

Thomas:
That was my big worry too – keeping the team engaged and active. People were there voluntarily. They’re not there to just sit around and do nothing. Obviously, somebody’s going to be frustrated if they’re just sitting there watching the clock. But things naturally paced out so that UX and Design helped set things up on day one and the techs just hacked through day 2.

We got to work with some technologies we’re not used to, and that in and of itself was eye opening. It was a very cool experience.

Jared:
One of the things I thought was really nice was that the company’s senior leadership team was 100% on board. It was a pretty big investment of non-client time for a good number of staff, and there was never any doubt about whether it was worth doing.  Two of the partners even brought us lunch on Saturday to cheer us on!

Having a real goal is important, but really what this was about was all the other side benefits that we got out of doing it. Massive amounts of knowledge, lots of practice, developing collaboratively, moving quickly. These are why the Hackathon was a success, not because we got an idea x far down the road.  We will be doing this again for sure.

Eve:
What would you do different next time?

Jared:
I’d like to try to broaden the team, get some marketing and more UX people involved. I feel pretty good now that we could another Hackathon with our techs, no problem. So I think that the attendance was good and we could tackle a different project that are more of a design and strategy focused. It would be interesting to see how that would play out – blending more of our marketing and dev teams together. Just to have that practice experience would be good.

Jared:
One of the downsides to the time constraints was running a little short on time at the end and having to make decisions of how far we should go.  We weren’t really strategic about that – we just said, “Okay we’re running out of time, let’s just finish this task and call it a day.”

So I think we should’ve structured the time differently. Since it was Saturday, and people were volunteering to do this on a weekend, folks rolled in a little later and had to leave earlier. After Friday, it looked like we had a whole day of hacking left when really it was kind of half a day.

Thomas:
I would’ve killed for a real PM that day!

Jared:
Yeah, somebody who was looking at that time and thinking about based on that I’m going to move the team this way vs that way. I think that speed helped us …It was great, great process, but someone to help keep an eye on that would’ve been good.

But at the end of the day, I don’t think anybody that participated felt it was it was a waste of time. Everybody learned a new skill, got to work with someone different, did some research. Everyone really got something out of it.

Thomas:
The whole event let us be a little more flexible. It was like stretching.

Beaconfire RedEngine’s mission is to serve non-profits and is why we work with who we do. If there’s a non-profit who has a problem they need to solve but don’t have the financial or internal resources, maybe we could get them 80% of the way to a solution. That’s creating some real good in the world. It would be a great use of our time.

Jared:
That was a very open secret of what I really wanted to accomplish out of all this. It was good to have a focused project because we sometimes do these things theoretically. You don’t really learn it by reading, you learn by doing. It’s good to have a realistic result in mind, and managing the challenges when it doesn’t work and you have to adapt.

Having a real goal is important, but really what this was about was all the other side benefits that we got out of doing it. Massive amounts of knowledge, lots of practice, developing collaboratively, moving quickly. These are why the Hackathon was a success, not because we got an idea x far down the road.  We will be doing this again for sure.

Eve:
Would you ever hack with clients?

Jared:
That may be the next step. A client (or prospect) could submit some ideas they want solutions for, we’d narrow it down and pick one. However, there would be no promise about what you end up with, so everyone would have to be on the same page about that. They may get a finished thing, they may not. It would be interesting to take it to the next step given what we learned from this first Hackathon.

Beaconfire RedEngine’s mission is to serve non-profits and is why we work with who we do. If there’s a non-profit who has a problem they need to solve but don’t have the financial or internal resources, maybe we could get them 80% of the way to a solution. That’s creating some real good in the world. It would be a great use of our time.

Eve:
Thanks for the great work guys! Can’t wait until the next Hackathon.

 


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