Like many scale-up companies, we grow our platform and teams at a very high pace. Finding time to test new frameworks, team up with peers from other teams to build features, or simply do something aside from day to day challenges is quite hard to do. And yet, getting some fresh air once in a while is a great way to stay efficient and motivated.
This is why we do internal hackathons, a fancy word to describe a day dedicated to innovation and new ideas testing. Every quarter and for a whole day, our product teams can decide what they want to work on, almost without any constraints. There are only 3 simple rules to follow:
- Small teams only
- A demo is expected at the end of the day
- The project must be company business related
We have been experiencing this process for 2 years now and got a few great achievements along the way.
Standard hackathon planning
- Ask someone in the team to take responsibility to organize it
- Around 9.30am, gather the team, ask for their ideas and vote for the most popular projects
- Ask people which project they want to work on
- Eat pizza or something you like
- Code again
- Around 6pm, demo
1 — Tech initiatives
These initiatives are the easiest to imagine for tech teams. Because they are their own customers, many ideas come to their minds.
During our hackathons, our teams prototyped 2 tech products that are now massively used on our platform:
A micro-service to craft and manage our emails (templating, testing, etc.). This was a real pain point for front-end developers and it is not a problem anymore. They built what they needed to ease their day to day job.
Cost of industrialization (from Proof of Concept to Production): a few days.
A smart way to rely on Google Datastore for progressive deployment purpose. We already had a feature to deal with this very common matter for high traffic web platforms. It enables you to expose a fraction of your traffic to a new feature (let’s say 10% to start), assess the impact and move step by step to deploy it to 100% if everything goes well. The previous version relied on static config files which were annoying to maintain and deploy. We replaced it with a Google Datastore (key / value storage) configuration which comes with a backend to make live changes. Once again, a pain point for the team, smartly addressed during a hackathon.
Cost of industrialization: a few days
These improvements made a difference, didn’t take too much time to build but were also simpler to transform from a 1-day proof of concept to a live version for an obvious reason: the tech team was the only one involved in that choice.
2 — Data visualization products
Data science and data visualization are part of MeilleursAgents DNA.
10 years ago, we created our signature product: an interactive map to browse a digital version of the real estate market.
Eiffel Tower view
This time, a team tried to answer a tricky question: does having a view on the Eiffel tower has a real impact on your home price? They started by doing a lot of data visualization, specifically to determine which buildings had a view. You’ll find below a subset of what they produced within a day. Not bad right?
As it was quite interesting and very graphic, we pushed this study further and suggested it to our PR agency. It ended up on the front page of a famous french newspaper, Le Parisien.
Cost of industrialization: a few days
3 — Business features
During the first hackathons, there wasn’t much ideas related to solving business problems, even though all of us are strongly committed to provide the best user experience to our customers. This paradox was a bit difficult to understand.
Gladly, our last hackathon helped with this situation and a team of 3 decided that it was time to help our Customer Success Team better explain the value of our main product.
So what happened? There are probably many factors to explain this change but one is pretty striking. A couple of months ago, we started to use OKRs to define company objectives and prioritize our teams effort. One of the greatest benefits of this method is that your teams quickly get a better understanding of company goals, problems to solve and customer needs. And they are part of the decision process. So, when they think of a major issue to fix during a hackathon, solving business pain points naturally comes to their mind.
Within a day, this team created a very neat product, a heatmap to show our customers in which geographies they are the most visible on our website.
The demo was quite successful and, a few days later, everyone was excited to realize they came up with a potential new product.
At the same time, we were collecting all initiatives related to our 2019 OKRs. So we didn’t hack the process and went on the field, seeking for customer validation. And we started small:
- the raw hackathon version, without any improvement
- a simple, semi-automated process: Customer Success Representatives have to send an email to request a new heatmap for a given customer. It takes approximately half a day to generate it
We quickly got great feedbacks and the product proved to be really helpful to our CSR! So we included it among other initiatives related to our OKR dedicated to real estate agencies. We scored it using the RICE method (kudos to Intercom folks) and it ranked pretty high!
So we moved forward, and decided to build a full version of this product.
Cost of industrialization: Work in Progress but probably around 6 weeks for a team of 4 developers. Hence, the need to score and validate the opportunity!
Like for most innovation processes, most ideas will go nowhere. It is what have happened for us so far and it is not a problem. We’ve tested a lot of new frameworks and product ideas, probably much more that what we would have achieved in a more structured approach. A fragment of these ideas went live and had a pragmatic impact on our platform and we’re good with that!
Furthermore, we have observed that initiatives like internal hackathons have a significant impact on our teams collaboration and confidence:
- Working hand in hand to build a great service, even during team-building time
- Being able to convince the entire company to further develop an idea requires for most developers to get out of their comfort zone. It is a great way to gain credit & spread knowledge among their peers
When you start to get outcomes with business impacts, everyone in the company understands that a hackathon is not just a “hipster stuff for developers striving for fun” but also a great way to come up with strong ideas to tackle business challenges.
Because customer knowledge is widely spread among teams (OKRs helped us a lot to improve it), they instinctively tend to use hackathon time to build impactful products and not only to test new fancy frameworks (even if it is perfectly valid to do that as well).
An incremental approach is a great way to change any other “potential good idea” into a real product. It is true for “business” features and for tech ones as well.