The NewVoiceMedia Hack-a-thon: Collaborate, Innovate, Generate (repeat)

That time of year has come round again when we get our creative juices flowing with the NewVoiceMedia hack-a-thon.

The hack-a-thon was an idea inspired by Atlassian’s ShipIt or FedEx days and Google's 20 percent time. The hack-a-thon is a vehicle to drive innovation, experimentation and creativity within our development teams. The idea is pretty simple. Our teams have 2.5 days to work on any project they like, providing it drives value to the business or the product in some way.

Taking part in the hack-a-thon is a great perk for the development team, with opportunities to:

  • work outside of their usual scrum teams
  • build better relationships
  • learn from others
  • break any silos of knowledge that begin to build up over time

When we care about what we do and have passion for our profession there are always those niggling little things that we'd like to improve and areas where we think, "This could be better". The freedom of the hack-a-thon allows people to tackle those issues and burning desires whether it be technical debt, proof of concepts, internal tools, product features or enhancements.

So where does it all start?

The preparation all begins a week or two beforehand. Gathering ideas is one of the key aspects. It’s not just developers we rely on to come up with the ideas. An email goes out to the entire company offering everyone from finance through to sales and marketing to provide ideas; after all, everyone in our company has used our product in some capacity or another. Even our CEO has a chance to pitch an idea.

We setup a whiteboard on wheels in one of the common areas and ask people to come and stick their ideas on, whether it be a Post-it note, sketch or full-blown written proposal. The physical nature of the whiteboard encourages people to get away from their desks and discuss their ideas with others at the board. As the board is up for several weeks those who are not in the office have plenty of opportunities to contribute. For those overseas or offshore, an email or video chat with their local scribe (me) will suffice.

Day 1 PM

The first afternoon is the time for the groups to form. Over the last few weeks individuals have been:

  • sharing their ideas
  • discussing their own and other people's ideas
  • putting their name forward for their preferred ideas or projects
  • determining who else is interested in the same projects

With a few refreshments and food to help things along, everyone gets their final chance to decide which project they want to take on and which people they want to collaborate with. What's left of the afternoon is spent planning with their teams, designing or just getting stuck in.

Day 2

Now the real ingenuity and hard work begins. The office stays open late and we order food for those wanting to work late into the night.

Day 3

Time for developers to put the finishing touches to their work and avoid that last extra feature that destroys the whole project. Day 3 encompasses the show & tell in a similar format to our normal sprint end demonstrations. To reduce the amount of preparation time by the teams, we limit each presentation down to a strict five minutes. Each team presents the work they have embarked on through demos, talks, slide decks, whatever works for them - accompanied by a beer and some snacks.

All the projects have their own merits and successes, but the competitive element is always key. The winners are spread across three categories:

  • envelope pusher (most innovative)
  • epic fail (celebrating a team’s failure)
  • best-in-show (your chosen winner overall)

We then vote, either in person or remotely, for each category.

Over more refreshments the votes are counted and verified, and the winners are announced. The whole session is recorded so we can provide it to other areas of the business or for those who were unable to attend. Backed by some inspirational words from our CTO and SVP of DevOps, the celebrations and team bonding continue at a local establishment, late into the night.

What happens next?

Despite all the fun and games, the opportunity to get ideas into the product and used by customers is never too far from our minds. Each of the teams write up their progress on the wiki, outlining what they think is left to be done to make it production ready, if anything. This is then reviewed by our product owners and taken into a feature team.

Against the high pressure of a 48 hour deadline, it is inevitable for teams to take short cuts and to experiment. In fact, we actively encourage this. However, before going live we need to make sure the project has been through our standard processes.

As with many of our processes, we inspect and adapt, and the process of the hack-a-thon is no different. In the weeks following the hack-a-thon, the same board that was used to collect the original ideas is used to collect feedback, including suggestions for future improvements. We use this feedback to see what we can improve on next time to make the initiative more successful.

Over the years the hack-a-thon has produced some radical ideas, from voice controlled interfaces and geographical data visualisations, to virtual reality environments of our product, something that we still wheel out at careers and recruitment fairs to attract attention from the budding talent.

The challenges

The process is constantly evolving, and there have been challenges along the way. We've tried to limit the scope and types of projects but this drove people to prefer their day jobs instead.

The initiative used to be called Ship It Day, with a high focus on production-ready products at the end, but this reduced the time spent being creative and innovative. For this reason, we have now opted for the current title of hack-a-thon to get away from the perception of production-ready projects.

Collaboration is one of our primary goals for the hack-a-thon, therefore making the sessions more inclusive for the rest of the business and getting them involved is an ongoing event. Removing some of the formal meetings around the hack-a-thon and extending the ideas collection have gone some way to achieve this but there's always more to do.

As I write this I'm still thinking about how we can make our next hack-a-thon extra special. With the company being twice the size it was 18 months ago, there are many people in the business who won't be aware of what we're doing. It's time to get the marketing and PR for DevOps on the road and get everyone in the business involved.
Dan phipps
Dan phipps

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