Work-Thing One: CIO Summit Hackathon

In late June 2017, our team organized and hosted the 2017 Government of Canada (GC) Chief Information Officer (CIO) Summit (funny how you only notice the acronyms when you actually have to spell them out). This Summit is an annual activity that brings together the CIO’s and heads of IT to discuss strategic way forward in the GC. This year, our mission was to re-imagine the purpose and execution of the summit so that our guests left feeling “inspired”…in other words we were asked to do this thing differently.

So we did, we booked an awesome space at the Museum of Nature, literally got a rockstar (David Usher!!!!) and other awesome expert lecturers to speak, and I ran a hackathon parallel to the event.

I thought it might be useful to reflect on the hackathon and share these thoughts and feelings with you fine people. I would love to hear your thoughts and challenges in the comments, on twitter or GCcollab. Feel free to connect!

How we did it

First of all, I wanted to mention that I did not do this alone (and I don’t think you should either). There are dozens of people in the GC who helped me make this a reality and I am so glad I got to tap into their expertise to get it done. It is really cool to see how many people are willing to help you if you just ask…so for all you out there…THANK YOU!

But back to business…

In brief, we had 36 participants, 24 hours, 16 sticky note pads, 6 flipcharts, 2 basement activity rooms at the Museum of Nature and 1 rogue team who worked out of Bayview Yards(so cool!).

Teams: We created interdisciplinary teams that included public servants, academics (students or professors) and industry professionals. It was free to join and participants were selected on a first-come, first-served based on their occupation. This meant that we got a relatively good balance between public service people and the public. Ultimately, our participation list broke down like this;

We reached out to people through our CIO’s social media platforms and connections as well as our own in addition to local post-secondary institutions. We ended up getting over 70 applicants to join. I would remind anyone organizing a free event like this to remember that dropout rates tend to be high, so don’t be shocked if people sign up but decide not to attend. For example, of the original 36 individuals invited, only 16 ended up attending. Luckily for us, I set our RSVP date ahead enough in advance so that was able to get in contact with the next 20 on the list and we had a full house.

Prompts: We went to the GC CIO community and asked them to provide us with topics they wanted “hacked”. We ended up choosing six suggestions and opted to create six separate teams who would each work on a unique topic, as opposed to a bunch of teams working on the same topic. As such, it didn’t feel as competitive. This strategy worked well for our case and resulted in six diverse proposals at the end of day two.

Prep: I worked with some of the brilliant minds at the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) to develop two-page “primers” for each of the prompts which the participants got in advance of the event. Check them out. They were also invited to GCcollab to connect with their teammates in advance of the event.

Food: We fed our 36 participants on both days and kept them caffeinated. I would really recommend providing some sort of food and/or beverage at like events, especially if the participants are volunteering their time.

Presentations: At the end of day two of the Summit, each team was given 10 minutes to present their proposal (some teams created prototypes, others created proposals or action plans) and 10 minutes for questions. The presentations were all well organized and presented, but the strongest one’s did a great job of telling a narrative to describe the value their proposal added.

Afterward: In order to guarantee the hard work that was presented at the CIO Summit Hackathon will not go to waste, we had the CIO’s and heads of IT nominate themselves to either lead or support each of the initiatives. The members who opted to lead an initiative will be responsible for providing updates on these initiatives at the CIO Council meetings.

What we didn’t do

Virtual teams: We opted to limit participation to in-person only. After going through the motions, I think having virtual teams wouldn’t have posed any major operational challenges so I would recommend investigating it so you can involve a broader number of participants.

Video Records: We also did not opt to videotape or livestream the final presentations of the hackathon, but in hindsight it would have been nice to be able to go back to a video record of the presentations and to have been able to share the final presentations with the IT community beyond those in the room.

Prompt Refinement: For the most part, the prompts we gave our participants were very similar to what we got from our CIO community. In the future, I would recommend drilling down a little farther on each of the prompts to better frame the problem for the participants.

What we failed at (GASP!)

Mentors: Do not under estimate their importance. We opted not to have mentors in the room during the hackathon due to logistics and although we got some really awesome results without them, I would recommend making room for them next time. They can play a critical role in ensuring the contribution your participants are creating is valuable for the organization. They can also help make your participants feel like their work is valuable and reassure them that they are on the right path. We had some experts on the teams and some experts on call, but I think having those people in the room would have elevated this event to a whole different level.

Okay so maybe not a total fail, but definitely the number one thing I would change next time.

Overall impressions

Overall, I was really happy with the way the hackathon turned out. The event brought together some pretty neat people with different ways of seeing the world.

The event proved that when we, the GC, get together with our community some pretty cool stuff can happen.

I would love to hear your impressions of the event if you attended as a participant, watched it unfold as a guest of the Summit or have some thoughts on what I have written here!

Until next time :)