INNOVATING WITH DISTRIBUTED HACKATHONS

Ben Darfler
4 min readJun 10, 2022

Innovation is the lifeblood of a tech startup. Keeping it flowing is a challenge for every tech startup that grows beyond a small team and that challenge is multiplied when a company is fully distributed like InVision.

Last month we kicked off our first distributed, cross-team hackathon with an explicit goal of breaking team silos and getting that lifeblood flowing. Spoiler alert; it was a huge success. This article aims to capture that lightning in a bottle to help both our future selves and other companies replicate our success.

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

InVision is primarily organized into independent development teams that own their own product delivery. This approach comes with many strengths but it can also come at the cost of cross-team collaboration and enablement.

To counter that, our primary intent for the hackathon was to build and strengthen personal relationships between the teams. A close second was to build a shared understanding of our combined product visions. Not only were these important goals in their own right but we also knew that focusing on them was the best way to create an environment for innovation.

About a month before the event, the engineering and product managers for the teams got together and hashed out a plan. We picked a 4-day window for the hackathon and talked through the high-level details. From there we created a slack channel, invited all the participants, and shared an early outline of the event including the goals, dates, attendees, and a high-level schedule. Going forward we would use the channel to build excitement with the occasional reminder or update as we worked out the details.

FOCUSING THE EFFORT

While many hackathons give their participants free rein to pick a project, we knew that having constraints would breed creativity. To ensure the hackathon had the impact we envisioned we narrowed our scope to the biggest blockers and most frequent pain points we encountered while building our product vision.

Key technical issues that were slowing our teams down or preventing them from accomplishing their product goals were organized into a set of “Problems and Possibilities” which was shared in the hackathon slack channel to get everyone thinking about how to best use our time.

Additionally, “Support Staff” with relevant experience in these areas were recruited from around the organization. This group of designers, product managers, engineering managers, and principal engineers committed to being “on-call” for consultation during the hackathon to ensure the teams had all the support they would need.

KICKING IT OFF

Finally, the first day of the hackathon had arrived. Around 35 attendees from multiple teams and disciplines helped us kick things off. Going around the room for introductions with 35 folks would have been a huge energy drain. To keep the meeting moving we went with Zoom break-out room introductions. A quick five minutes later everyone was feeling the love and we moved on to a quick review of the goals and schedule.

The meat of the kickoff came as our talented product managers walked us through our ambitious combined product vision across multiple teams. As they went, they highlighted common themes and struggles across the teams, painting a clear picture of the value of the “Problems and Possibilities” we had shared.

With everyone raring to go we took a page out of the unconference playbook and spun up a Freehand to self-organize and dropped from Zoom. After a few hours of asynchronous discussion and discovery, we reconvened on Zoom. The group had coalesced around a small number of projects and three engineers offered to lead three of them. Everyone else picked a project and we were off to the races.

WRAPPING IT UP

Over the next three days, the teams put their all into proving out concepts, exposing new APIs, combining existing projects in innovative ways, and building a new architecture for sharing functionality between teams.

Around mid-afternoon, on the final day of the hackathon, we held our demo party. The excitement in the “room” was palpable. One after another the teams unleashed incredible demos showing the power of cross-team collaboration. The recording of the Zoom and short write-ups from the teams (including a paragraph on “what would it take to do it for real”) was shared across the organization and garnered an enormous amount of excitement.

While it wasn’t planned, the hackathon landed in the middle of quarterly planning which only amplified its success and impact and we are now executing on much of the potential that was shown over 4 exciting days in April.

EPILOGUE — IN THE DETAILS

One question we struggled with was how to capture that co-located hackathon “feel”. This is an area ripe for fun and interesting ideas. For this hackathon, we provided a food and drink stipend to each of the participants to cover a meal a day (maybe more) and a celebratory beverage. We also hosted a morning coffee to kick off each day, celebrate early successes, offer support, and keep building those cross-team personal bonds. The combination seemed to hit the mark but is by no means the only way to do it.

After it was all over, we sent out a survey to the group for feedback. While we had nearly universal high marks, one theme for improvement did stand out. The participants wanted to see more structure to ensure the hackathon work didn’t land in the waste bin once the hackathon was over. While we lucked into quarterly planning cycles, this is an area that we would think about more deeply next time.

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Ben Darfler

Engineering Leader, Father, Meditator, Elected Official, He/Him. Currently Director @ Honeycomb.io