One day this past winter, I was talking with my manager about some ideas for side projects I'd come up with but hadn't been able to make time to actually work on. It's often like this in engineering-there are the ideas you hope to work on, and the ideas you need to work on. In the course of this conversation we realized it had been a few months since we'd held a hackathon, and with spring approaching we thought it would be a great opportunity to devote some time to working on fun side projects.
There are a lot of different ways to run a hackathon, and A/B testing is kind of our thing here, so we decided to run things a little differently than we had the last time, and see what sort of creative things people came up with.
Planning & Organizing
Our first hackathon was a whirlwind, one-day event. Recognizing that it's difficult for people to commit to a single large block of time, but also recognizing that constraints are crucial to spurring creativity and forcing people to actually finish things, we decided to do a modified hackathon, conducted over the course of a month. Teams were given general timeframes to guide them through each stage in the product development cycle and help them manage their time and attention.
Next we created the teams. A lot of people were interested in participating, and we had a great mix of data analysts, engineers, and designers, not just from Cogo but from the companies in the incubator as well. I purposefully chose the teams rather than letting them self-select. I wanted to make sure each team had people that had website and app experience and people without any experience, so that the teams were balanced and there'd be opportunities within each group to teach and learn from each other.
Beyond that, we didn't impose any limit on what people could create, what tech they should use, or how “useful” it should be to Cogo. I wanted everyone to make whatever they were most interested in making. I just advised them that they would want to choose something that they could make in a month.
Groups met Mondays after work, with dinner provided by Cogo, to encourage people to hang around. On the first Monday, each group got together and started to come up with ideas for their projects. The process of deciding on a project took way longer than we expected--almost two out of the four weeks. But since every team put so much thought into their projects, we knew they would make some pretty cool apps and websites.
So what'd they make?
A drinking game generator app for iOS. You enter various inputs such as how many people want to play, how many quarters, ping pong balls, or plastic cups you have on hand, and the app suggests games that meet your criteria.
A web app that helps you plan interesting meals on a road trip. You enter your destination and it finds the best reviewed restaurants that are closest to your travel path, using the Yelp and Google Maps APIs.
A bar crawling web app. You input your zip code and your start time, and the app plans a very fun itinerary for you.
Up & to the Right
This was a Cogo-themed video game, for both mobile and desktop devices. You control an avatar (shaped like Senior Engineer Matt Carlone; more about him in a moment) and try to navigate navigate the fast-paced world of online marketing.
Up & to the Right
A literal robot controlled by Slack. You can use Slack commands to guide it through the office to deliver a verbal message to a coworker. Useful for those times when a personal touch is necessary, but you're still too lazy to get up from your desk.
An actual Slackbot
On the last day of the Hackathon all the teams gave product pitches and demonstrations to show off the things they'd created. We enlisted our CEO and a few other people from around the office to judge the projects on the following criteria:
- impressiveness/technical difficulty,
- user experience,
- innovation/awesomeness, and
- pitch quality.
Anna kicks things off
The rapt Hackathon audience
Of course in an abstract sense, everyone who participated was a winner. But in a more concrete, literal sense, Team Heating Up proved to be the judge’s favorite, winning the grand prize and Red Sox tickets, while the SlackBot team won the award for fan favorite, and received free passes to Brooklyn Boulders.
There was a special 3rd category when the aforementioned Matt Carlone, who also happens to be a very talented baker, offered to make a cake for the team whose project he liked best. After a night of pondering, he shockingly selected Up to the Right.
Matt playing the game he stars in
The feedback we collected at the end indicated that people liked that the teams were chosen, as it encouraged them to work with people more closely than they might ever have needed to otherwise. People also liked the structure and length of the program, saying it balanced the opportunity to create something relatively stress-free with the opportunity to create a cool product they were excited to show people.
Cooperation, mentorship, communication, and technical ability are core to the values and the work we do here at Cogo. The hackathon allowed the participants to work with colleagues they wouldn’t usually work with, learn and teach each other new technologies, and build random, creative things that might not have gotten built otherwise. Overall, it was a great experience and we're excited to organize more hackathons in the future.
Want to be part of our next hackathon? Join the team! We're always looking for entrepreneurial engineers and data analysts.