Tech Corner

Hackathon 101

By Snapsheet • April 14, 2022

Here at Snapsheet, we prioritize innovation and new ways of problem solving. Indeed, those are common buzzwords in the tech industry, but how do we encourage that behavior in a tangible way? Process committees, hack days, and regular retrospectives all play a role. But our favorite method? Enter: hackathons.

Since 2019, the tech department has hosted an annual hackathon. Spanning three days, with self-directed teams and projects, our teammates have the space and time to tackle any pain point or area of interest they’d like to explore. 

It takes some coordination to plan a hackathon for a 70+ person department. Instead of hosting the event at the same time every year, we choose dates based on our roadmap and sprint calendar, identifying a cool-down week that works best for all teams and in-flight projects. It’s important for us to respect this block of time and not worry about our habitual work, so this advanced planning and delegation is key. We announce the hackathon several weeks in advance so individuals can begin brainstorming ideas, using an ongoing sign-up sheet to announce project plans and recruit others.

We encourage everyone to look outside their team for collaborators, as this is a great opportunity to work with new people. In the past, these novel combinations have led to new working relationships and org changes. One of our engineers loved working with an unfamiliar tech stack and engineering manager so much that she eventually transferred to their team, crediting that hackathon experience for moving her career forward. Hackathons are great opportunities for engineers to explore new tools and tackle projects outside one’s regular scope of work. Many teams use this as an opportunity to research new technology that may be beneficial for our platforms to adopt, such as OpenAPI.

It’s not just engineers that get to participate in our hackathons- our product and strategy teams all join in on the fun. Offering end-user expertise and cross-team knowledge, our product, implementation, and client training managers are an integral part of the process. We also invite our executive team to attend as judges, providing an opportunity for visibility with leadership, as well as receiving feedback and support. Our executives love the hackathons because they are reminded of the power and talent of the individuals on our tech team. The judges choose two winning teams based on the following categories: Most Innovative and Highest Business Impact. Our third winning team is selected by the hackathon participants, a People’s Choice Award. 

One of the best parts about Snapsheet’s hackathon is what happens afterwards- most of the projects, if not all, are added to our roadmap. This enables us to tackle projects in a new and interesting way: doing most of the work upfront, and perfecting the details over time. Mobile applications, dynamic QA machines, and user-customizable homepages are all incredibly impactful features that originated as hackathon projects.

After hosting four hackathons, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Always an iterative process, we incorporate feedback into each new event. One engineer, for example, offered up the idea to host a recruitment meeting where individuals can present a summary of their project idea to those who have yet to join a hackathon team. We’ll be adding this to the planning process for next year, allowing others to join teams based on what piques their interest. 

Overall, hackathons allow our teammates to expand their skill sets and learn new tools. Over the last few years, hackathons have become one of our favorite parts about working at Snapsheet.

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