Two days of big ideas: Panaseer Hackathon 2019

💡Hackathon Brainstorming💡

Hacka.. What?

Some of my favourite moments from my ~3 years at Panaseer have been during one of our bi-annual hackathons.

If you’ve not come across one before— hackathons essentially stand for “A cross-functional team, trying to prove a big idea with limited time”. Bringing people from different teams together to look at problems from unusual angles, challenging common thinking and not worrying about failing, estimations, timelines, releases… basically concept development without the slow parts of production-ready product development.

My name is Anton, and whenever we don’t have a hackathon going on I work on the Frontend team of Panaseer. I’d like to take you behind the scenes of our most recent hackathon. A time when everyone in the company puts down their day-to-day work to solve challenging problems facing Panaseer, with innovative thinking and very little time. I hear you thinking “ That sounds like fun!”— it definitely is!

The Run Up

Let’s begin in early March, it’s post-lunchtime on a cloudy London day, the company comes together both in the office and remotely for our weekly All-Hands. I’m taking a seat by the window, deliberating whether I should get myself a quick coffee beforehand to fight off lunchtime sleepiness. Too late — the updates are kicking off. We run through a number of business updates until Charaka, Panaseer’s CTO, gets up to spread the happy news.

The first hackathon of 2019 has been scheduled and it’s just 3 weeks away! No coffee needed anymore, excitement is in the air as a murmur of conversations erupts. Everyone’s got an idea to share with their neighbour.

It’ll be the 5th hackathon in Panaseer’s history and the first one with a theme: Accelerated Customer Aquisition. Exciting! The clock is ticking, we now have 21 days to refine our ideas, form teams, design a mission and get into the hackathon mindset. All so that we can give our everything for 30 hours at the end of March.

8 am Thursday, Kickoff

21 days later — I get to the office with an hour to go before the hackathon kicks off. The last few days have been a blur of project work, user research and above all planning for this moment. We have 9 teams at the start line, all eager to sink their teeth into their respective problems.

The issues being tackled are ambitious projects! From UX redesigns to integrating new technologies and solving data platform visibility issues. We’ve got 50 minutes till kick off — time to make an extra strong coffee and eat my porridge (we’re in London after all) to get that extra energy boost ⚡️. I’ll need it for the next 30 hours when five of my colleagues and I will be working hard to prove our concept in time.

5 pm, Almost Half-Way

London rush hour is slowly picking up outside as Londoners stream out office buildings making their way home for dinner. The busy energy is reflected on the first floor of our factory style office building on the south bank of the Thames.

It feels like it’s been more than a day since the teams kicked off. We’ve been through multiple stages of the product development lifecycle in mere hours. Some teams have completed Big Idea Sessions, Design Workshops, Remote Software Architecture Discussions, Whiteboard Planning, API Specifications, the list keeps going on.

Towards the end of the first day, there’s usually a magical moment when everybody is in high spirits as the projects are starting to take shape. We’re approaching the half-way point and coders & non-coders don their headphones to get into the zone. Some to write software, others to refine designs, create slides, evolve concepts — everyone, from all walks of the business, is involved and contributing.

It’s not long now until we break for pizza and beers before getting back to the last hackathon shift in London. Meanwhile, in our US offices, after remote briefings with their UK team members, the day is still young. Long after (most of) us Londoners are fast asleep, our overseas teams will continue working on the projects.

10 am Friday, Morning of the Last Day

10 am in London and we’re huddling for a re-group. It’s time to prioritise what needs to get done before the demos. We’re optimistic that we can get everything done in time, but the 3 pm deadline is looming closer and the list of must-do tasks ever growing. Wouldn’t be a hackathon without it.

Whilst slurping Flat whites, Americanos and tea, we get into the zone for the day. I take a moment to look around the office, soaking in the contrast of teams brainstorming together and the focus radiating from headphone-wearing coworkers captivated by their projects. That’s what makes hackathons so special — the unique combination of innovating together and individually contributing on a high-focus, high-output level.

My team has put together their plan for the day and we’re ready to go. The next few hours will be key for us to get our disparate pieces of software integrated, the concept designs finished and everything bound together with a cohesive presentation. The pressure is on.

2 pm, 1 Hour to Go

We’re close to the finish line. Efforts are coming together as teams merge designs, integrate tech and assemble their pitches.

My team is having last minute struggles, as we integrate 4 systems that evolved from scratch over the last 30 hours.

The soundtrack of everyone’s keyboards is humming in the background as 4 of us huddle around a laptop watching the latest deployment progressing. We’re holding our breath waiting to see whether the application startup will fail for the n-th time, all previous attempts have been forgotten, only this one counts. And then the next one. And the one after that. Until it passes and we’re up and running for the demo.

2:55 pm, Demo Time

The hackathon is coming to its finale as people are starting to get up, stretch, last minute coordinate, all (mostly) ready for the demos. My favourite part of hackathons is coming together at the end to watch in awe what we’ve achieved in such little time. It’s impressive how 2 days with diverse teams and no fear of failure can produce innovative and boundary-pushing results.

For this one, our largest hackathon yet, we’ve got a packed lineup. We’re kicked off by a demo of how Panaseer could level up its helpfulness by automatically pushing information back into the data sources that we usually just pull data from. A one-way street becomes a two-way street.

A tough act to follow, but a team that was looking at smart ways of identifying data cleanliness issues using frequent pattern matching has no problem capturing attention. We run through 4 more demos including the one from my team — everything goes as planned and we breathe out a sigh of relief as we get the concept across. Our demo is followed by many more impressive pitches including those put together by cross-Atlantic teams, co-located in our London and US offices, as well as the team looking at the UX overhaul of Panaseer’s homepage — the first pure UX-design hackathon project.

4 pm, The Votes

All teams have demoed and everyone’s minds are still stunned with the impressive work we’ve witnessed. It’s on to the next and final stage of the hackathon. It is time to vote, not just for the overall most impressive and innovative project. All teams have been competing for one of the following awards:

🏆 Hackathon Champion — Overall best and most innovative project

💃🕺 Teamwork — The most cross-functional and cooperative team

🕵️‍♀️🕵️‍♂️ Intrepid Explorer — The individual that pushed their personal skill boundaries the most going beyond their comfort zone and day to day responsibilities

🎖CEO Award — Handed out by Nik, our CEO, to the project that aligns & contributes the most to Panaseer’s business vision.

💭 Non-Product-Innovation — Best hackathon innovation that isn’t based on our product.

In my opinion, every single one of the teams deserved an award, but the company agreed collectively that the UX redesign team was the clear winner of the overall award for their unique vision and tangible outcomes that will push Panaseer forward in the coming months.

6 pm, All Done — Time for Drinks

6 o’ clock and it’s officially beer time. Awards and congratulations are done and everyone is heading to the drinks fridge for a well-deserved beer or Kombucha. To the sound of opening cans and bottles, we recount the last few days and share stories of what we experienced in the different teams. Even though we just spent 2 days working at our limits, everyone is energised and glowing with the collective energy from contributing to making Panaseer a more innovative and in the end successful company.

Onwards and Upwards

Every year the effects of the hackathon can be witnessed long after the hackathon itself comes to an end. An air of innovation and willingness to experiment stays behind infusing our product development process. You’ll hear people talking about a “hackathon-style” of working in the hallways and a lot of the positive energy generated twice a year during those 2 days lingers to make us all better and more productive members of Panaseer.

👋 If you’d like to hear more about the projects from our 2019 hackathon or you want to share stories from hackathons at your company get in touch on twitter @panaseer_team.

If you want to be part of a company that values diverse, cross-functional teams and innovation — we’re always looking for talented individuals to join our team. Have a look at our open jobs and get in touch.