Inside a Scalable Capital Hackathon

By Anas Ambri

One of the perks of working at Scalable Capital (shameless plug: we’re hiring) is its quarterly hackathons, where, for 48 hours, employees put their work aside and try to solve pain points that they encounter in their day-to-day at the company. While this might sound like a giant waste of time for anyone with a swollen JIRA backlog, mounting evidence suggests that they are a good vehicle for sustaining innovation and pushing new ideas (did you know that Facebook’s Like button was a hackathon project?). Additionally, they give us a chance to eat pizza while mingling with coworkers from other teams, so what more could an engineer ask for?

Preparation

The hackathon started with a pitch-your-idea session, where, in turn, employees would present a problem that they have identified and how they want to tackle it. This allowed individuals to form groups, which would later go on to tinker with the original ideas further. The pitch could come in different forms, but some went the extra mile by treating this as their work and creating a convincing PowerPoint presentation.

Nothing says ‘innovative solution’ more than a Powerpoint presentation

Group Formation

If you have ever been in a hackathon, you know that this is the most decisive phase of your hackathon experience: deciding which project you will be working on for the next 2 days. After some more discussion, a few groups organized and started taking over all the available space. No quarter was left unused, not even the ping pong table.

Good ideas are born everywhere, including on ping-pong tables

The Food

You know what’s worse than engineers developing features without a project owner? Hungry engineers developing features without a project owner. In this aspect, we were spoiled by a wide array of delicious meals, ranging from tasty Thai food to Munich-grown fingerfood to every developer’s staple food: pizza.

Obligatory picture of engineers eating pizza at a hackathon

The Projects

This sounds all fun and dandy, but you might be wondering: what’s in it for Scalable Capital?

Aside from the excitement and motivation to work on something different, the hackathon let us experiment with new technologies that might not have made it into a normal sprint process. For example, one project attempted to use Apache Kafka on AWS to stream data to our different backend microservices, going as far as integrating with our existing internal monitoring tools. Another project attempted to expose a Jupyter interface to some of our internal data, allowing our employees to review the weighting for each Value at Risk category that we provide.

However, the majority of projects attempted to combine many existing tools to streamline our processes. RoboCalendar, for example, turned all backend events, from daily banking reconciliation to fee generation, into calendar events that could be added in Google or Apple’s Calendar using QR codes. Another project, Scalable Goes to Hollywood, built on our existing Analytics Illustrator project, to make it more shiny. Even one of our project owners got the chance to automate some of her work, by creating Chrome bookmarks extensions that would auto-magically populate our onboarding questionnaire.

The Results

All projects were presented in front of a panel of three judges, who assessed usefulness, cool-factor, and creativity. All projects were also the subject of a popular vote by all participants. The winning project, by both popular vote & judge selection, was Deploy Assistant: a Mattermost plugin that generates the list of commits before a deployment to production and collects every developer’s approval before starting the deployment.

Deploy Assistant in action

Epilogue

Hackathons are a great opportunity for companies to involve their employees in the problem-solving aspect of the business, especially since they are better equipped at formulating technological solutions to it. At Scalable Capital, this is also an opportunity to experiment with new technologies, exchange ideas across teams, and, best of all, show off one’s hacking skills.

Thanks to Jennifer Lin for reviewing drafts of this article