Earlier this month, Breathe Life had its second-ever hackathon. There’s never a shortage of work for our engineering team, so their time is precious. Nonetheless, we invested two full days of their time, and them a chance to work on…well, anything they could come up with. Here’s why, and how, we did it – and why we think it was worth it.
Organizing the hackathon was a joint effort between our engineering leadership team and our Culture Manager (I also chipped in a bit, as someone who cares about dev experience). We crowd-sourced project ideas, voted to identify the favorites, and then collected team preferences and made teams that would have two days to jam on the problem, and see what they could come up with. We also opened signup to employees in other disciplines, and marketers, business analysts, and others joined in to help ideate, organize, and present. At the end of the second day, teams demoed what they’d produced for each other and the whole company; in addition to videos and powerpoints, the outputs ranged from prototypes to actual finished software.
The teams took on wildly varied projects; one team automated a manual data entry process that’s been a huge inconvenience for some of our employees in the past, producing working software to solve a very specific problem. Another investigated integrating web sockets into our existing tech stack in new ways; they had a working prototype and proposed new features the technology would unlock. Yet another spent two days researching domain-driven design and coming up with a draft proposal of how we could better organize our ongoing work to align with domain-driven design principles.
All of these projects were valuable and came up in conversation in the weeks that followed. But in many ways any value we get from the work itself is a fun bonus. The real purpose of an exercise like this is to recognize our engineers as what they are: talented creative problem-solvers with a specialized skill set. We gave them two days to follow their bliss and work on the problems, big and small, that interest them, and to fully unlock the benefit of their creativity – and, hopefully, to help stoke and refresh that creativity, so that folks can show up to work on Monday with new ideas, perspectives, and energy for our ongoing work.
As we try to do for any initiative like this, we ran a survey of participants afterwards, and overall the hackathon was a big success. There’s always room to improve, though; for example, one theme in the feedback was the need to give more time at the end of the hackathon for teams to present their work. It’s something for us to keep in mind for Breathe Life’s next hackathon – date tbd, but definitely coming sooner or later!