Back in November, I had the pleasure of speaking at How To Web in Bucharest, Romania about a subject very close to my heart – hackathons. More specifically, how product teams can use hackathons, both the environment and the hacker mentality, to drive their products forward in a way that is both engaging and creatively flexible for developers.

The main talk will be online on the How To Web YouTube channel shortly, but here are some of the key points I made:

Have Restriction-Free Time

Part of the draw of many hackathons is the freedom to experiment in a no-pressure environment. You try out ideas and if they work, great. If they don’t work then it’s okay, you probably learned a lot about how to execute that idea and you’ll get it next time.

Being able to do this in your every day job on a product team is important; I know of teams that all go away together and work, other teams have replaced their monthly sprint retrospective with an internal hackathon, where anything goes. It’s good to have a break from the norm.

Introduce New Technologies

Hackathons are great for finding out about and using new technologies, but why should it just be a hackathon thing? There’s tonnes of new technology that I want to play with each month but finding the time is difficult, so I try to find a day where I hack with one of these technologies. Everything from new developer tools, API services, languages, and prototyping boards. You can do this at your company too, and if time is a problem how about doing lunchtime sessions so folks can eat and learn?

Peer Knowledge and Support

Learning from those around us happens in a mega-concentrated way at hackathons. There’s always help on hand, at the table, in the room, from the dev next to you or the Developer Evangelist or product specialists at the event. Getting amongst these people is a great way to get problems solved and to learn best practices from others. Try to encourage this kind of thinking in your company, share ideas and experiments. Better yet, bring in guests from other companies – who can also be more objective, to talk to the teams.

Feedback

If you’re taking your product out into the hackathon world, try to commit to actually listening to feedback and as often as possible, turn that feedback into stories and get them on the backlog. Hackathons provide a brilliant environment for setting a use case for a product and seeing if that case can actually be achieved by developers in the room. The problems they run into, the questions they ask, may all be reasons to reprioritise the active work on that feature. Listen and learn!

Involve the Whole Company

When we did our first internal hackathon in May 2014, it was a great success. People from all areas of the company attended, contributed, and even hacked on something for the very first time. For some it was their first hackathon experience, others were old hands, but it didn’t matter because it got everyone working together. Bringing in people from the whole company to work on ideas together is a tremendous way to move your product, and your company culture, forward.

The slides I presented that day, if you want to check them out, are on Speaker Deck.



Martyn Davies is a Developer Evangelist at SendGrid and a creative developer based in London. He has worked in technology for over 14 years with a background in both the music industry and technology. A serial hackathon organiser, mentor and startup advisor, you’ll find him presenting, demoing, hacking and chatting at hack days, conferences and meetups in the UK & Europe on a regular basis.