Hackathons!

Recently at Distilled we hosted our first two day Hackathon, not only that but it was our first team focused hackathon. The focus was on the Customer Service team and it was huge success on many fronts. Let’s take a look a closer look at the event and what lead to it.

Hackathons to Date

Let’s rewind a little and take a look at our past Hackdays which have been single day events. The engineers show up on the day and hack something that they have an interest in. Some work on solo projects, some form teams and others jump around on the day getting a taste for each of the projects being worked on. We usually get in some nice lunch and towards the end of the day a beer or two is usually in order. To wrap it up we usually do a very brief show and tell on what was worked on. The product team have been known to pop along to see all the cool new capabilities.

One of the best things about the day is that we are not restricted to hack on projects that are directly related to our day to day work or any of our products. We have the freedom to flex our creative muscles and try out that new shiny JS framework we have been putting off for ages, or that cool new machine learning tool, or learn a new programming language, [ ADD THAT COOL THING YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH HERE ]. Give me examples you said? So one was an app that gives you a shot of Chuck Norris truths when you need one, this was coded in React Native and was driven by an API coded in Java. This allowed a frontend engineer to try out React Native and an Android developer try their hand at writing some API’s in a Java back end. Another was an Android developer investigating Kotlin, which turned out to be time well spent as our Android codebase’s are moving to Kotlin as a result.

Why Change

Revitalise

So with the above format we were having one Hackday a quarter. We found after the third one that it had lost a little of it’s new and shiney feel and people were sometimes finding it hard to come up with new projects to work on.

Include

Another part of it was that we wanted to change the fact it was predominantly engineering that took part. We wanted to try get everyone involved from all departments. From HR to Finance, BizOps to Engineering and all other departments in between.

Solve a Problem

The customer service team had a lot of problems that needed solving and were only able to get so much through our normal product backlogs in the game that is prioritisation.

Customer Service Hackathon

The three points above were the ingredients that lead to our two day hackathon format which was:

Teams of people come together over two days to creatively solve problems for our customer service team. They will compete for prizes, scoring points for the problems they solve. At the end of the first day there would be competitive tournaments in FIFA, Mario Kart, retro Games, Table Tennis, Foosball and Codenames, each with a winners prize. The games would be fuelled by pizza and beer, while we got some really nice lunch in both days also. Towards the end of the second day each team would get a chance to present their work while we had three judges score them.

Let’s take a closer look at how it all came together:

List of problems

First up, our customer service team worked tirelessly to fill out a spreadsheet of all of the problems they were having. Whether it be customer complaints about a particular issue that generated hundreds tickets a month, access to particular data in their admin tool that would remove a dependency on another team, to repetitive tasks that could be automated or slicker. From here all of the problems were categorised, tagged, weighted and added to Target Process, the tool we use as our issue tracker.

Promote and Sign Up

In the meantime we had set a date for the new hackathon and decided it would be ove two days. We started to promote it and gather suggestions from everyone in the company on various aspects of it. Shortly after this we sent around a sign up form. One of our goals while promoting the event was to communicate that it was open to any and everyone in the company and not just engineering. Also that if you couldn’t make the two days that this wasn’t an issue, just pop along and get involved on the day. Did I mention that we also had a brilliant logo whipped up by one of our designers. And like all my favourite events there was the need for swag so we ordered some t-shirts to go with the new logo.

Assigned Teams

As the day grew closer, we still hadn’t communicated how the teams would be formed. After looking at all the sign up’s we felt it would be better to assign teams to try balance out the different skill sets and ensure each team could fairly compete with each other. This turned out to be a brilliant decision in the end. Everyone was really happy with not having to form teams and on the day they all got right into it. I remember waiting to do the kick off presentation in the Wexford office and I was missing a team, I soon found them in a room strategising how they were going to approach the problems. It must have worked as they went on to be the winning team.

On The Ground

On the first day, team names were picked and the rules were outlined. The only rule was that teams were not to be greedy and only assign themselves up to three problems at any one time. Over the two days the customer service team members were on the ground interacting with each of the teams and giving more insight into each problem. The teams worked together to brainstorm solutions, figure out the impact of the solutions on the product if any and finally implement/suggest the solution. The solution could be coding it, documenting it, communicating a process change etc.

Quick glance at what the timetable looked like:

Day One

9:20am — 10:00am: Kick Off

10:00am — 1:00pm: Hacking

1:00pm — 2:00pm: Lunch

2:00pm — 5:30pm: Hacking

5:30pm — 10pm: Pizza + Beer & Competitive Games (optional)

Day Two

9:20am — 9:30am: Kick Off

9:30am — 1:00pm: Hacking

1:00pm — 2:00pm: Lunch

2:00pm — 4:00pm: Presentations

4:00pm — 4:30pm: Judging

4:30pm — 5:30pm: Awards

Result

We had an amazing turn out with people from all departments. Even our CEO Eamonn put his engineering hat back on and committed some code to solve a few problems. We hadn’t told anyone but customer service had a target of 50 problems to be solved on the day which was met with a massive 54 problems solved which led to a very happy customer service team. There was great collaboration on the day and people who don’t normally work with each other got to work together. Departments that don’t normally need to interact were working side by side over the two days.

If anyone is thinking of doing an event like this we can highly recommend it. We love this new format but that’s not to say we won’t be doing our original free for all style Hackdays. We hope to find a balance between these different types of events but are also open to try new ones.

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