Hackathons Are for Everyone
By Michelle Arieta2020-09-166 min read
What do a talent insights video, model APIs with Domino Model Monitor, the data science lifecycle, a capacity dashboard, Visual Studio Code plugin, racial inequality awareness project, and switch to Bazel (not basil) all have in common? These were among the 21 hackathon projects brought to life over a three-day cross-company hackathon at Domino Data Lab.
I have now been at Domino for four months – all fully remote – as our VP of People. Through this time, I’ve been challenged – as have most organizations right now – to engage our global workforce in a way that we’ve never had to before: from their homes, fully remote and with distractions we never anticipated. As a people leader who is passionate about employees working together, I was intrigued when tasked alongside an all-star cast to bring to life a company-wide Hackathon and Team Week event. Some may ask: why a company-wide hack? I thought hackathons were just for engineering teams? Not so!
“We wanted to do something that would energize everyone across the company, spur creativity, and solve real business problems while giving employees a break from their daily Zoom meetings and projects,” said Natalie McCullough, our president and COO. “I thought it would be interesting to extend the hackathon concept to be a more inclusive program that could engage our 175+ employees and 21 teams – not just Engineering.”
Employees were challenged to ‘hack’ away at a series of peer-nominated projects, aligning with both our strategic priorities and our people strategy. Some keys to the successful hackathon week for us at Domino included:
- Projects were selected by our executive team from a pool of over 70 nominations, based on their alignment to one of our six company strategies.
- We entrusted an employee-based committee to influence the hackathon format.
- Projects encompassed wide-ranging skills that included all employees.
- Each hackathon team was cross-functional and cross-regional.
- We clearly articulated that the goal for the week was to shift employee focus, not create a distraction.
- We used this as an exercise to dig into our culture and create a tradition while boosting employee morale and collaboration.
The judging, prizes, and pitching format were awesome. We had several categories beyond 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place to foster a healthy sense of competition. We gave awards in categories like “Best Vocals” (yes, there was singing!), “Best Teacher”, “Best Pitch Without a Presentation”, and “Most Creative Demo.” All of our hackathon participants got creative swag, too!
One of the best parts of the hackathon was seeing projects that will end up becoming a part of our internal toolset and now have a place on the roadmap. Many projects focused not only on customer-facing tools, but they also optimized the employee experience. It was truly a unique balance.
Not only were there positive outcomes around collaboration and team building, but actual outputs were extremely innovative, intelligent, and productive. Our CEO, Nick Elprin commented:
“I was absolutely blown away by the creativity and innovation across so many projects. It was a striking testament to the power of cross-functional collaboration, and a reminder of how important it is to find ways of maintaining that collaboration in the remote working situation we’re in today.”
Company-wide hackathons are a great way to promote company cohesion in a fun and relaxed atmosphere. They give people room to be creative and to work with people across teams that they would normally not interface within their day-to-day lives. By giving people the space to experiment, tinker, and get to know each other, whether during the actual hackathon or at our Spelling Bee, Escape Room competition, or Mixology event over the course of Team Week, we gave them permission to create something of value to themselves and the company at large.
Reflecting on the week together, Engineering Manager Jon Radchenko noted:
“I had the opportunity to work with some of the developers on the other teams and witnessed what a passionate, motivated and intelligent group we have here at Domino. Additionally, I was incredibly impressed with the different skill sets our employees have, outside of what they bring to work on a daily basis. We have singers, artists, movie producers, and a slew of other impressive talents that I didn’t know about. This was a very tough week but very fulfilling and I can’t wait for the next one.”
The next one? Yes, there is definitely a ‘next’ one in our future at Domino. What’s the secret to success for participating in a hackathon like this? There may not be any single bullet to take home the winning prize, but here are some tips to boost your odds of a successful outcome:
- Impact: Create or find a solution that you think will benefit you or others.
- Experiment: Try, and if you fail, try again! (Or as we say at Domino: ‘Iterate to excellence!’)
- Recognize: Show others what you can do and discover what other people are capable of.
- Open your mind to others’ ideas and realities.
- Trust: Collaborate with your peers to make it happen.
- Be ambitious: Push the boundaries…This is time for a breakthrough concept!
- Disrupt: Don’t be too shy to step out of your comfort zone.
- Connect: Feel free to share your skills and participate in others’ projects.
- Think creatively: There are multiple ways to look at things.
Do you have questions about how to make a cross-functional hackathon successful? Don’t hesitate to reach out to me – I’d love to hear your thoughts! Finally, if you are interested in learning more about careers at Domino, please check out all of our opportunities here.
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