So why do you have such a dumb, goofy grin?

Oh, we threw an in-house hackathon; the first at our site. Participation was massive, and we destroyed work silos that had been dogging major projects for the last 12 months. The results were such that the directors and VPs have asked us to ‘take it on the road,’ and replicate the hackathon in other EMC offices across the country. Seriously, one of the most rewarding projects in my career..

But a hackathon? That’s a little played, isn’t it?

Probably. But a lot of the people we worked with had never attended one, or had even worked at a start-up. We were transitioning over to agile and new web frameworks and the old CYOA waterfall methods just were not only unhelpful; they were in some cases actively undermining our attempts to efficiently take quality software to market.

So what did you do? Just throw a two day meeting on everyone’s calendar and call it good?

That would’ve been easier, but not as effective. No, after we decided that was the missing piece in our training schedule was two days of uninterrupted learning, we pitched upper management. Once they signed-off, we started filling the cracks and breathers in our regularly scheduled work with event planning and curriculum design.

Event Logo and Swag

Process
Final
T-shirts
Stickers

Posters

Attendance was a concern. EMC had never thrown a hackathon before and attendance was sanctioned but 100% optional. We started by commandeering the monitor to show subtle teases about the date (a mistake; the date was move 5 times because of schedule slippage) and I designed, printed and plastered the office with these posters.

"Zine-esque posters we spread throughout the office"

The guerilla marketing paid off and we had over 60% of the site signed up for two days of hacking. This included departments other than engineering like QA and management; we had a significant variety of coding experienced, which is when the Bird-House Concept became really important.

Birdhouse?

This was an idea we landed on during planning. Remember when you were a kid learning something like wood-working? There were kits for everyone to start off with. The kids that really took to it went of on their own and wood-stained the roof, tongue-and-grooved the corners and whatever else that was well beyond me. If you were like me though, even if you weren’t experienced or gifted, you could still follow the instructions and walked away with a pretty basic birdhouse, a little more know-how and a glowing sense of accomplishment.

Ahh, birdhouse. Got it.

So once we identified three APIs (one internal, one external, one we created ourselves), we designed and built project kits off of all three.

We threw them up on Github and organized the teams with experienced leaders and less experienced team-mates so mentor/mentee relationships emerged organically.

The organizers of the hackathon (me and four amazing coworkers) acted as the event’s floaters to unstick teams before they got too buried in technical problems.

So what did you learn?

The event was Monday and Tuesday, so probably the best thing we did was schedule a long lunch Friday for sign-ups to grab their t-shirts and set their environments up. A large number of attendees had never used tools like Atom or Github even, much less NPM, so this cut down on any unexpected problems that would’ve killed momentum.

We were taken by surprise by the creative energy people attacked their projects with. Everyone was ambitious, despite (or maybe because) some of the greener members, and everyone delivered something finished and functional.

What went great?

The organizers were all taken aback by how energized and excited the entire office was. People came out of that energized and with new connections across departments. Every single team delivered something finished after just two days of hacking. That was huge for us.

And Management thought it was worthwhile?

Absolutely. 50 people had new working relationships with coworkers completely outside of their organization. These steps started undoing the work silos that hurt our efforts so much the twelve months previously. It was very gratifying that the directors and VPs took notice too, asking us to travel to other EMC offices across the country and repeat the hackathon program our team organized.

Sounds like you guys had a blast. Got any pictures?

Oh, absolutely.

That’ll do it for this one. See you after the next!