Mid-October is annual Hackathon time at Infotech. Every year since our first hack in 2016, our Hackathon has grown - the core philosophy being that any employee can participate and pitch an idea that in some way benefits Infotech and/or our customers. But in March of this year, when Infotech shifted to remote work due to the pandemic, we realized this year’s Hackathon would have to be very different - our Hackathon would have to be 100% virtual.
Our very first Hackathon was intended to shake things up, to spark innovation. With it, we wanted to create a focused, intentional opportunity for ideas to bubble up and be explored, and it did exactly that. But we learned that it also did something more important. Our post-Hackathon surveys that year and every year since tell us that what our people most enjoy is solving problems together and building relationships with fellow employees they don’t yet know in our growing company of 300+ Infotechers. The annual Hackathon grows Infotech’s connective tissue and in 2020 that turned out to be more important than ever.
Going 100% virtual imposed many new constraints. How might we keep people engaged throughout the event? How might we enable teams to do the ensemble demos that are such a favorite?
We had to get creative with Zoom and Slack, figuring out what we could do within the constraints of those mediums and platforms. We also decided to throw the teams a curveball: in addition to implementing their idea and preparing for a live demo they would have to produce a 5-minute demo video, edited and produced by members of the team. This added a whole new dimension to team recruiting. Now they were looking for skills like storytelling and audio/video design. Employees who hadn’t previously seen themselves as hackers were suddenly in high demand.
A week before the main event we had our first test: the virtual pitch event. Pitchers got 60 seconds to pitch their idea. Then we used Zoom breakout rooms to let people circulate, talk to pitchers, explore their ideas, and sign up. It worked better than we had hoped. Within 90 virtual minutes, 130 people had signed up for 15 teams.
The next Wednesday we turned them loose for two and a half days of hacking. Zoom rooms and Slack channels worked well here, too. Teams adapted to their virtual environment immediately, with most teams quickly splitting up into specialist sub-teams. The energy in these rooms was high - in some cases frenetic; they knew they had a lot to do in a short time.
By Friday, everyone was ready for the main event. The teams had submitted their videos. They had (hopefully) practiced for a live demo if they made it past the first judging round.
It was showtime.
We had been concerned that by demoing virtually through videos we would miss out on the crowd energy and connection that were so important in the live demos of years past. Moments after the first video started we knew that would not be a problem. The Zoom chat exploded. With live demos, the audience can’t jabber; with videos, everyone can jabber at once. Emojis started flying, exclamation points were everywhere and it just kept going and going. To cap it off, the last video was a country-western-rap Infotech original music video. It was over the top. The crowd loved it.
While the judges deliberated the top three, the audience voted for the People’s Choice Awards. We reconvened, awards were announced, and acceptance speeches were given. It was time for live demos from the top three. The judges deliberated and chose the winner - a team that dubbed themselves “Cloud Control” and built a tool to help us optimize our cloud services costs. We wrapped by playing the new Infotech song music video one more time.
In retrospect, we did not anticipate the impact this event would have on our employees this year. Our culture is driven by collaboration, by interaction, by mutual support; we are a family. This culture is challenging to sustain remotely. Like so many others, our Infotech family has been stressed by the events of 2020, but it turned out the Hackathon was exactly what we needed. A coming together to create, cheer each other on, and connect.