Not Your Average Company Hackathon

It’s 7pm and I’m on an expansive porch looking out towards blue water and a white beach stretching to each side. Waves crash into the shore and a cool breeze carries the scent of the ocean inland. The sun is just beginning to set, casting golden light over the shore. I take another sip of my margarita and feel thankful for where I am.

Sounds like a vacation, but it’s not. This is Zello’s company hackathon.

It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago, I was sitting in a modern highrise in Bellevue, Washington, working for Microsoft. Although I enjoyed my team and our product, that world felt distant from critical social issues. I decided to move back home to Austin, where I was fortunate to find a role with Zello, creator of the popular push-to-talk mobile app that essentially turns your phone into a walkie-talkie. Zello is used worldwide and in a variety of contexts where instant voice communication is necessary — everywhere from the transportation industry to search and rescue efforts.

A destination hackathon was a new thing to me, but it’s become a tradition at Zello, which holds week-long hackathons twice a year in unique locations to focus on solving real problems in impactful ways. After a successful first winter hackathon in Breckenridge, Colorado, Zello held their spring hackathon in Destin, Florida, just a few months after I joined. Here is what I learned.

A new environment lends itself to creativity

Zello rented two large houses on the coast for the week, where we spent our time working with a beautiful view of the ocean. Instead of an office, we worked from anywhere — the kitchen table, the living room, or up in the fourth floor observation tower. For meetings, we went outside on the porch or down to the beach.

Being so close to the beach was invigorating. We’d spend a morning working hard, then go for a swim in the pool or ocean around lunch time. After taking a break and enjoying the ocean, I found that it was easier to work through tough problems.

I spent the week feeling more inspired overall, and it was great to feel a sense of accomplishment after each day of hard work. It was even better to spend that moment relaxing in a hot tub or walking along the beach.

Letting employees pitch ideas promotes innovation

Normally, teams follow a product roadmap, working on features defined based on pre-set business goals. The hackathon gave us a chance to each pitch our own ideas and work on things that we are passionate about. As a new employee, I was interested in Zello channels and had an idea around improving discoverability, so I was excited when I was chosen to lead a team focused on this.

While a hackathon can foster many new ideas, it can also lead to developing legitimate business cases. The pitching process prompted me to think through the business value of my idea, different use cases, engineering constraints, and then condense it all into a compelling and concise presentation.

The main problem we wanted to solve, conveyed in a storyboard

The hackathon included everyone in the company, from the product team to the marketing and sales teams — something that would have been impossible at a larger company. We were divided into four teams focused in different areas. While my team worked on improving an experience in our consumer product, other projects ranged from onboarding in ZelloWork to targeted marketing efforts. Some teams were more design- or engineering-driven, while others were more sales-driven. We came from a variety of backgrounds, with each person bringing their unique skills to the table.

The only rules were that we had to create something to ship within a week, which is not much time to design and build something new. But I found that the short span of time and brisk pace forced us to quickly develop a focus and spend time on the things that mattered.

My team, the Navi-gators, hard at work

You learn new things working in different contexts

At a large company, a designer wouldn’t have the chance to lead a team of engineers, but the hackathon gave me the opportunity to do this. While I view things from a user experience standpoint, I spent the week working alongside people who looked at things from an engineering perspective, and I began to gain a better understanding of the development process and how features are built.

I was challenged to bridge the gap between design, engineering, and business, and ultimately take on more of a project manager role in addition to design. I found that I also improved other skills as I led my team, working to define requirements, communicating detailed specs, and organizing a demo and presentation.

The Sharks team presenting at the end of the week in the living room (photo by Jim Pickering)

The hackathon also gave me a chance to work on a new platform and with new people at Zello. Up until the hackathon, I had primarily worked on our Android application, but my project involved iOS, so over the course of the week, I found myself working for the first time with our iOS developers. As a result, I learned much more about our iOS app and different technical constraints I would need to work with. I also got to know coworkers I had previously little daily interaction with.

You’ll become closer to your coworkers

Working and living together in a new environment for a week encourages you to interact with your coworkers more, and on a more personal level. As a result, this increases what is known in social psychology as group cohesion, or the forces that push members of a group together. The more cohesion you have in a group, the easier it is to remain united in pursuit of a common goal.

Lunch at a beachside restaurant

Spending more time together encourages you to find things in common, which ultimately helps you work together more effectively. Smaller annoyances will come up as well — after all, you’re sharing a living environment — but handling them together only strengthens your cooperative skills.

We spent the days working in groups on our projects, but afterwards, we would go to dinner each evening as a company, and then back to our assorted bedrooms to sleep. There were moments of intense work, relaxation, and of course, happy hours.

Dancing at one of the beach bars (photo by Wil Nichols)

We also scheduled a day off from work to enjoy Destin, going dolphin watching, snorkeling, and riding jet skis. It was nice to relax, but the time off also gave us a chance to socialize beyond our normal work interactions. As a newer employee, I started off the hackathon working alongside coworkers, but I left being able to call some of them friends.

Boat ride for dolphin watching and snorkeling (photo by Jim Pickering)

It’s exciting to actually build something

In “normal” environments, particularly at larger companies, it can be difficult to get people on board with a product improvement or idea, and it can take months of meetings, negotiations, and iterations before it is built. Zello’s hackathon gave us the chance to transform our ideas from hypotheticals into reality — all within a week.

My team’s project resulted in channel search improvements, and we added popular searches, autocomplete, and filters to the search experience. Having a fully built out project to demo at the end of the week was exciting, and seeing what other teams had built was impressive and inspiring.

Part of my team’s solution, filters!

My team ended up winning in the vote for favorite project, but every team built out their ideas over the course of the week, and they all became a part of our product.

It’s fun

Perhaps the most important thing about the hackathon is that it was fun. How often can you really say that about your work? There’s something exciting about going to a new place, with people you might not know very well, and working together to create something great. All in all, it was a wonderful experience, and I’m thankful I had the chance to take part in something like this. I’m looking forward to the next one!

Does Zello sound like the kind of place you’d like to work? We’re hiring! Check out our open positions here.

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