Remote Hackathons, Reducing Complexity, and Simple Groupon

Shannon Welling
Jul 28 · 4 min read

Written By Anthony Caliendo and Shannon Welling - July 27, 2020

For the last 7+ years, Groupon regularly holds a multi-day hackathon named GEEKon where participants are encouraged to innovate around a theme, create new technology, and most importantly, geek on. Think geeking out, but more continuously and on a larger scale — we love a play on combined words here. Every 6–12 months employees can drop what they’re doing, form teams, and spend 3–5 days working on cool, new ideas. The ramp-up to GEEKon includes several weeks of pitch sessions, brainstorming events, and months of planning from a globally dispersed core team. The whole event culminates in a full day of presentations and project selections with the hopes of GEEKon ideas turning into full-scale fully-staffed projects to be rolled out across the company.

When it became clear that a multiple day, in office, global event was not possible, the GEEKon planning committee took a cue from Groupon’s overall goal to simplify systems and processes and applied it to event plans. The idea for Simple Groupon was in itself a pivot to simplify. Simple Groupon set out to bolster teamwork and foster quick wins within the parameters of a global pandemic, market uncertainty, and for the first time in company history, a totally remote product and engineering organization. This went even further to make simplification the theme of the event itself.

Over time, there is a natural tendency for things to become more complicated. As systems become more complicated, it takes longer to build new features and more effort to merely keep them running. There are more points of failure and moving pieces, so reliability and performance are negatively impacted as well. Deep knowledge of the systems becomes essential to navigate complexity, which makes ramping people up and moving them around to adjust for changing business needs (such as during COVID) more difficult. Likewise, burdensome processes introduce friction and slow down progress overall. These things are often described as “technical debt”, and they have a constant tax which compounds the more debt you have. They are overhead which makes everything less efficient and take longer. It was these types of problems that Simple Groupon wanted to tackle.

The intent of Simple Groupon was to “make things better by making life easier”. These efforts could take many forms:

  • Make product development, team efficiency, reporting, and/or ourselves better
  • Make life easier by simplifying workflows, cleaning up backlogs, reducing noise, resolving long-standing bugs / known issues, widening Groupon skill set/knowledge

Avoiding introducing complexity in the first place is the best way to keep things clean, but failing that, cleaning as you go helps to keep technical debt manageable. However, oftentimes things slip past or there are unintended consequences for changes that increase complexity. Sometimes, we even choose to introduce complexity with the hope we can come back later since it is the right decision for the business at that time.

To manage this, teams will do cleanup alongside iteration work. For larger cleanup initiatives, especially those which require coordination from multiple teams, a specific project/epic will be created which may span several iterations. However, Simple Groupon was an attempt to bring the “bug bash” concept to address the problem of accumulated complexity. With this format, there would be complete focus on this across all of product and engineering. We could score some quick wins, and the ideas worked on came from those closest to the problems which mitigates running afoul of Chesterton’s fence.

The format of a 24 hour hackathon where employees voted for their 3 favorite Simple Groupon ideas was used to encourage quick wins while making it possible to involve large groups of employees to democratize the decision making. In turn, employees were empowered to make the changes they came up with and to start thinking simpler. With a clear goal and simple format, it was important to provide some high-level guidelines to allow participants to get the most out of their time. Using a few simple prompts helped teams to come up with ideas to simplify their day-to-day.

Prompts included:

  • My life would be simpler if…
  • If only I could take time to fix…
  • It’s such a pain that…
  • Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if…

Hosting a fully remote event while doing less was the antithesis of a typical hackathon (usually resulting in tons of really cool big ideas that may never make it to a fully realized project state). Removing the tertiary “business” of hosting something that would normally include large production value and high planning time/cost allowed quick turnaround and enabled the ideas and work of participants to be the sole focus of everyone’s attention.

At the end of the 24 hours, nearly 100 Simple Groupon working teams shared their progress and submitted their project for voting via a single slide highlighting the problem they were trying to solve and overall outcomes, findings, and results. It needs to be said that this event wasn’t without skepticism — especially when it came to the ability to deliver value with only 24 hours and a minimal amount of planning. Afterward, data points around lines of code deleted, systems turned off, and estimates on time saved going forward were gathered to help quantify the value of the event to those skeptics. A survey was also given to not only gauge how people liked the event (spoiler: the response was overwhelmingly positive!) but to also serve as a retro so we could iterate on the concept and improve future events. Overall, teams were able to quantifiably reduce complexity throughout systems and improve work lives of their teams and coworkers.

Similar to the bug bash concept it was based upon, the value from Simple Groupon won’t just stop after the event is over. The event created momentum that will help keep people the mindset to clean up as they go along. Some of the bigger ideas from the event are also being converted into epics and stories. We’ll definitely be doing many more Simple Groupon events in the future to boost and reinforce the importance of reducing complexity.

Groupon Product and Engineering

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