How Whatnot Built 5 New Beta Features in its First Hackathon, with Minimal Planning
The Engineering Team at Whatnot prioritizes moving uncomfortably fast and actively avoids things like process, overhead, and external blockers that might slow us down. We love to build, and love to build together. The way we approached our first ever hackathon last month demonstrated how our engineers believe in this approach and thrive in an environment where moving fast and building are core principles.
The outcomes from the two-day hackathon were remarkable, and the opportunity for everyone to work, bond, and have fun together was even better.
Our hackathon origin story
Whatnot is a remote-first company with employees in the United States, Canada, South America, and Europe. The majority of us work from home every day, but we have small office footprints in Los Angeles (HQ), New York, and San Francisco (coming soon!).
Remote work has always been an integral part of our culture (especially since the majority of the company’s existence has been in the Covid-19 era). We also seriously value the opportunity to safely get together in-person when possible. In March, for example, Whatnot organized an all-company offsite in Austin, Texas.
Our engineers thought it would be cool to try to squeeze in a hackathon before the main company-wide event, so we planned one.
Planning the event
In short, we didn’t plan much at all! We created a slack channel, invited anyone interested to join, and started throwing out project ideas asynchronously.
What we didn’t do, importantly, was over plan. While there are plenty of templates and guides available online covering how to plan a hackathon, structure its agenda, encourage participation, judge a competition, and award prizes, we stayed away from over planning because we collectively didn’t feel the need to. Our team was just psyched for the opportunity to work together in this way, and most importantly, encouraged to do it.
On our first day in Austin, those of us on the ground met at a local co-working space.
We settled in with:
- No official start time
- No kickoff meeting
- No agenda or timeline
- No officially stated requirements or goals
- No prizes, competition, or expectation to present anything at the end
However, everyone on the team showed up highly motivated and excited to work on impactful and interesting things. Within the first 15 minutes of most people arriving, the large conference room became a decentralized and self-organizing hive of activity.
One bigger project in particular attracted a substantial cross-functional team that went straight to the whiteboard to map things out. Smaller projects attracted groups of 2 or 3, and a few engineers didn’t fully commit to one project, but instead became floating resources, able to help projects as needed.
Building some stuff
The process of kicking off the hackathon projects was organic, a bit chaotic, but overwhelmingly exciting. There was an electric atmosphere in the room, amplified by the fact that we were a group of people that hadn’t really gotten to work together in person before.
Each project team was heads down and building within the first 30 minutes of arriving. There was some discussion about “properly” kicking off the event, or trying to coordinate with remote teammates, but it was clear that it was unnecessary. What we witnessed was a truly engineer-led movement to build some impactful things over a two day period, without any extraneous process or overhead.
Our teammates in Poland experienced something similar as they joined together in one workspace, in-person. They ended up organized around a single project and jammed on it throughout the two-day hackathon. The excitement and enthusiasm felt in Austin was truly present in Krakow, too. Spoiler — the Polish hackathon team actually built and launched the most complete feature, the fastest.
Back in Austin we worked closely together, sometimes in one big room, sometimes scattered across different places, and even across different parts of the city. Teams took big swings. Engineers worked in codebases they hadn’t touched before and collaborated with people from other teams they’d never worked with before.
Everyone eagerly shared their progress with each other as they figured things out. Sometimes questions emerged, like:
- How would the hackathon end?
- Would we all present to each other at some point?
- Would there be a “winner?”
But the building and work continued, and the focus remained the same: at the end of the day, the chance to build things together, in-person, was THE thing that mattered most to the team.
Two days flew by, we worked on our projects until the very end, and then the hackathon participants joined the rest of the company for the offsite held the rest of the week (which was also insanely fun, btw).
Around 25 engineers participated in Whatnot’s first ever hackathon, and built the following things (and more):
- A major new tentpole feature for Whatnot called “Stories,” which will create an entirely new way for sellers to create compelling, stoppable, asynchronous content.
- Another huge feature for the livestream experience, “Polls.” Sellers can now ask questions to their audience in real time. This is the feature the Polish team worked on, and they achieved an insanely complete experience after just two days.
- An entirely new way to browse through Whatnot livestreams via an infinite swipe between lives approach. This is a huge opportunity to hook up with our DS and ML teams to steer users to the content they’ll find the most interesting.
- An experimental “games” feature, where Whatnot hosts can choose a game for their audience to play, either cooperatively or competitively. Current demo includes Flappy Bird and even Doom.
- “Because you watched…” discovery feed, based on updated model.
- Automatic live product images, where an image of a sold product is automatically captured when an auction in a livestream finished.
Several of these projects were effectively fully shippable by the end of the hackathon, and the rest were quite close and have subsequently been finished or are close to being finished. These projects will contribute material impact to the company and to our users, despite largely not being things we’d tackle on the roadmap any time soon.
The amount of substantial and meaningful work accomplished in this short time period, with engineers both self-selecting their projects and being entirely self-organizing, is a testament to the engineering culture here at Whatnot.
For us to put on a successful hackathon, we only needed one thing: the chance to get in a room (physically or virtually) together and build. We absolutely champion this spirit, and it pushes, drives, and motivates us every day.
Whatnot Engineering truly loves to build. The only thing better than building, is building together.
Interested in building with us? We’re hiring!