Attack of the Hack
By: Wayne Pichotta
Hackathons are a powerful tool to accelerate innovation by requiring usable and useful code in just a matter of days, these events prioritize substantive progress over lofty perfection. We’ve hosted several of these Hackathons internally at Truecar in the past few years, with a surprising number of groundbreaking ideas finding themselves refined and productionized after the Hackathon was over. In the remote year of 2020, we wanted to continue the tradition, and for months, we held out hope that the pandemic would improve and we could return to some kind of in-person experience. Despite all the advances in remote gatherings, we weren’t particularly jazzed on the concept of a virtual Hackathon event. In past years, we loved those engaging, fulfilling days of focused hacking. We didn’t want that to change. But, as has happened so many times in the last year, we had to face the reality that this was a very different time and commit to our first fully-remote Hackathon event.
We’ve always believed in the power of a Hackathon to bring new ideas to the forefront and shake up teams to approach problems in a new direction. Especially in a year of working from home and forced isolation, it was important to us that we break the monotony of our standard routines by having engineers self select onto projects and teams allowing for new challenges and new teammates for a time. Although we are a medium-sized public company now, our engineering culture builds on the freewheeling flair of our startup roots and the Hackathon helps serve as a reminder of that culture.
In the past, everything about our Hackathons have been over-the-top elaborate. Outdoor tent with DJ booth? We did it. On-site massages, baristas, and happy hours? Of course! Costumes, giant-sized jenga, and naps under your desk? Absolutely. Even the trophy was faux-gilded in the stylings of the Stanley Cup, adorned with homages to nerd culture. Those days of intense focus sandwiched between playful levity were our favorite way to hype up the team. Needless to say, the pressure for the event was on.
As we planned, we tried to replicate the in-person energy wherever possible. We primarily leveraged Zoom, as our platform of choice. Each participant received a goodie box of SWAG items, including socks, sweatshirts, playing cards, stickers, and candy. The goal was to make sure we all still felt connected and collaborative. We knew that some of the techniques or activities might not work, but a Hackathon is about fearlessly trying out big ideas. When we fail, we learn from it. And ultimately, we were able to bring about product advancements from our teams of engineers and non-technical collaborators across the company. It reinforced for us that great ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes medium to large-sized companies struggle with top-down leadership, but TrueCar is always looking for mavericks that want ownership of the product and to help build a better car-buying experience, not just code to a spec for a feature that is handed down the chain.
It was evident from the projects that emerged how much the teams bought into the goals of the event and relished shaking things up a bit. Some of the ideas have had a direct impact on our business, and were ready to ship to production fresh off of the Hackathon including a full TypeScript conversion of our codebase that got shipped during the event. Other areas of our product that benefited from the Hackathon included communication tools, upper funnel shopping experiences, and a full site autocomplete search.
Perhaps best of all, the winning teams were able to select projects to receive $2,000 to help them advance their work. These included Women Who Code, and a number of initiatives from the Open Collective, including FLOSS Desktop For Kids Incubator Project, scikit-learn, Open Broadcaster Software, webpack, and date-fns. It is very rewarding to be able to give back to the technical community by empowering newer developers starting their careers in the industry and supporting the open source projects that help us build our website.
Despite our initial hand-wringing over a remote Hackathon, we could not be more inspired by the success of the ideas and feedback on the event. We were still able to inject fun with a 1950s sci-fi theme, costumes, over the top motivational speeches, swag boxes, and happy hours. Don’t let the current challenges of a distributed workforce scare you off of planning your own Hackathon! The rapid-fire innovation and sense of unity that it builds are well worth the planning. And, if you do try it, be sure to let us know in the comments the tips for how you also pulled off a successful remote Hackathon.
If this sounds like the type of team you want to join, be sure to check us out on LinkedIn for all the latest job opportunities at TrueCar.