A hackathon at Botify
At least once a year, we organize a hackathon at Botify, and our hackathons are all about having fun. However, this is not how they are always perceived. It is a very specific event, even for a startup like Botify, and companies are easily tempted to pack a piece of the company’s roadmap in it. Or because of the limited time and hackathon atmosphere, one might feel compelled to be extremely productive or innovative — the potential of pressure you can put onto yourself is high.
All in all, that is absolutely not the way we do it at Botify!
This year, the hackathon was organized by the tech team itself, including me: a backend engineer curious about how to organize such an event. Needless to say that it was a great experience! It was a good opportunity to share our view of what makes a hackathon enjoyable and what we value in it:
Embracing creativity, trying new things and having fun with your team altogether!
Here is what we did for the October 2021 edition and what it shows of us.
Embracing our core values
Involving everyone from the start
From day one until the end, everyone had a place and a chance to contribute to the hackathon organization. Here are some examples of how this occurred.
As any team event, it cries for goodies and a souvenir of the event. Multiple polls were organized to choose what kind of goodie would be appreciated. It worked out well, as we ended up with these very comfy sweaters!
The event was announced many months early to give everyone the chance to prepare their own ideas. The range of possible topics was endless. The only condition to accept a subject was to get between 3 and 10 persons working with you on the day of the hackathon. The teams should not be too small nor too big as depending on their real needs and complexity of their project. But finding the right balance was left as an exercise to the team leaders themselves!
Even though we are a deeply technical company, it was important for us to create an inclusive environment. We encouraged everyone to participate and propose topics, including SEO experts, support engineers and product team members among others. Furthermore, everyone’s opinion has the same importance, from our co-founders and C-levels to our interns.
In order to encourage the proposal of different topics, communications made it clear that there was no constraint at all. Once some persons started writing down useful, interesting, challenging or zany ideas — many more would follow.
We still specified three criteria to vote for a winner:
- Usefulness — will this project survive the hackathon?
- Polish — project and presentation quality
- Fun — do you have a firm favorite? A criterion that comes in handy for some projects!
About some technicalities, taking two days for a hackathon still means we have to maintain the best experience to our clients while having most of our technical team not available. Our amazing support team structured itself to ensure a satisfactory level of service and responsiveness from the team (by the way, have a look at how they function internally here).
And we had the incredible chance to do the hackathon entirely onsite, in our Paris office, which is excellent for such a team building event.
The core of the hackathon (some great successes)
An awesome project concerning the French Internet ancestor: the Minitel. Many features were developed for the Minitel, leveraging an Arduino to enable them. French nostalgics will be keen to see this piece of technology revived.
A dedicated blog post will be published to explore this extraordinary project.
The story of a bug fix or a feature implementation always begins with a ticket. The tickets are unique, but sometimes the stories are alike. For instance, the same bug can be reported several times by different people, each using different words to describe the same issue. No matter how well-written the tickets are, a simple keyword search into the ticketing system is rarely enough to connect the stories.
Ticket Finder fights against duplicated efforts by identifying the closest tickets to the one at hand. It works based on the syntactic and semantic embedding of the ticket’s description and title.
AI-based graph generation
From content to code generation, the latest technologies in machine learning such as GPT-3 from OpenAI make us wonder how far we can dream! We were quite impressed with the results. Above is a graph generator to explore our data automatically based on a simple description of what we want. Others great successes using GPT-3 include some neat categorization scenarios for our client’s data exploration as well as content generation.
Challenges to overcome
Working as a group of 3 to 10 towards a common goal is not an easy task. Especially when you have to present your work to your competing colleagues. Here are some obstacles we faced.
Around 50 Botifyers were in the office to participate. Gathering everyone for the many moments of the hackathon, including the opening presentation and the final project presentations where everyone is in a joyful mood or in the ultimate rush of preparing a working demo can be quite intense! Defining a clear and timely agenda of these moments and having a loud enough voice were key to get everyone together and start on time.
Speaking about time, a lot of people wished they had more of it. This aspect is the most important part of the hackathon and is somehow disregarded. The feeling of lack of time can come from many places: lack of preparation, an excessively ambitious project, the desire to always do more or feeling to much the pressure.
Why is it interesting? Because it feels exactly like half of the interest of doing a hackathon, that is, to play at being your own little startup for two days. You need to be prepared, to have your subject coined, not to fear downsizing and adapting it along the journey. If any lesson must be learned from it, it’s to see how you managed your project.
Since we involved every team from the Engineering department, we faced the challenge of making people fit that do not code on a daily basis. A hackathon is not all about coding, but it’s a major part for most projects. It was a challenge to leverage everybody’s strength on the different projects, but also let people discover new skills and take the time to learn.
What a time to be alive!
The hackathon was a success. A quick internal survey showed us that people loved its organization. Now that it is over, it’s time to look back and do a retrospective.
First, it is interesting to analyze the projects’ themes.
- Many projects were an opportunity for Botifyers to learn about something new for them. This included new technologies (like playing with the GPT-3 model) but also working on things outside of their comfort zone.
- Another major project category was improving and automating daily time-consuming or annoying tasks. These projects included a tool for faster investigation for our Support Team.
- Finally, we saw deeply technical and complex topics. One example is the optimization of our computational workflows. We currently scale the computation of data dynamically through a powerful workflow system. It works well for high volumes, but having many small tasks causes inefficient use of our workers. One hackathon team dived into an aggregation of small tasks to efficiently leverage the allocated servers.
Lots of the projects bring value that we want to keep. This was already the case last year and remains very accurate this year. Project owners are encouraged to advocate for the continuation of their project and teams will have dedicated time to maintain the project.
As for what we can improve, we will definitely bring more clarity to our voting framework, in order for every project to have a fair chance of winning based on criteria we can all agree on. But mostly, we’ll buy more pizzas at the end of the day for our chill session! Some people had to fall back on crisps because we didn’t get enough pizza! 😱
To sum up, people loved the hackathon because of the inclusiveness and given freedom around topics. We are even thinking of organizing it twice a year. Compared to the previous iteration that was fully-remote, participating in an event all mixed together in the same place was a strong part of the fun.
If you want to know more about how we do our hackathons and our projects, feel free to reach out!
Interested in joining us? We’re hiring! Don’t hesitate to send us a resume if there are no open positions that match your skills, we are always on the lookout for passionate people.