Having a Hackathon in 2020

By Janaki Perera, Allison Keane Barr, and Chelsea Zlotnick

December 17, 2020

The product and technology teams at Quartet have had a hackathon every year for the last few years. Our hackathon is an internal event, held over the course of 2 days, where we come together across teams to pursue project ideas outside of our normal work. It is an opportunity for creativity and innovation and a chance to connect with people we don’t see in our day to day, and it has been an important part of our product and technology team culture. However, we weren’t sure if we should continue the tradition in 2020.

It goes without saying that this year has brought a lot of change, stress and unimaginable obstacles. We know these are unprecedented times; we wake up every day still in a pandemic with no definite end in sight. As a company, Quartet has been fortunate. We were able to transition to doing our work entirely remotely and have been able to remain stable — we’re incredibly grateful for that. As teammates, we are all trying to do our best at work, while taking care of ourselves, our families, and our mental health. With everything going on, it’s harder to feel connected with our colleagues. It also seems easier for everyone to get burnt out.

Ultimately, we decided that, while there would be challenges to it, we wanted to try out hosting our first remote hackathon as a company. We wanted to energize our team and give folks a chance to work with people across the company that they don’t usually see. Traditionally, our hackathon has been a time where we gather the distributed members of our tech teams, pitch ideas in our New York office, and work together in person to see what we can accomplish. People self-organize into teams, and there are a lot of ad-hoc conversations and impromptu meetings. This year, we needed to find a way to do all of that virtually. First, we assembled our hackathon leadership team — three women, representing engineering, product, and design. Then, we got to work. Here’s how we set about planning our hackathon:

  • In advance — We announced that the hackathon was happening this year and put a hold on people’s calendars. Four weeks before the event, we sent out a Google Form for people across the company to submit ideas for problems to try to solve in the hackathon. Then, with two weeks to go, we shared a signup sheet for individual teams and let people select from pre-submitted problem statements or submit their own.
  • Week of — We sent out fun hackathon swag by mail to all the participants.
  • Day before — We held a kickoff happy hour in which each team introduced their project idea, and then we let people join breakout rooms for the teams they were interested in.
  • During the hackathon — We encouraged teams to start Slack channels to discuss and coordinate work. We then checked in periodically to see how teams were doing. We also set up open office hours with engineering leaders to help teams get unblocked.
  • Hackathon presentations — We wrapped things up with remote presentations open to the entire company.
  • Voting on prizes — We shared a recording of the presentations for anyone who wasn’t able to attend, and then solicited votes from the whole company during the week after the event. We announced our winners “in person” at our next all Product and Tech meeting.

Our 2020 hackathon was a success! We had more teams sign up than in previous years, and received positive feedback from participants across the board. We’re not sure if we’ll be in person for Quartet’s next hackathon. Either way, continuously improving our processes is important to us and there are some things we’d love to try for our next go around. This year to give people a starting point for brainstorming we introduced the idea of hackathon themes — , Learning from Our Data, Access to Effective Mental Healthcare, and Better Tools for our Internal Team. — We would like to explore themes further in the future, we could do prizes per theme, or maybe just one uniting theme. Gathering ideas from across the company for hackathon problems to solve worked well. In the future we could find ways to involve stakeholders across the company in teams to foster cross-organization collaboration even more. We would also love to find more ways for teams to engage in brainstorming in the lead up to the hackathon. The breakout rooms in our happy hour kickoff were well-received and effective — people liked being able to discuss the team’s ideas casually and to brainstorm together. Maybe next time, we can set up a couple similar events focused on project idea development in the week or two before the event. We could also keep a running list of ideas for the hackathon, or consider holding mini hacks throughout the year.

We are proud of the enthusiasm and engagement from our teams in Quartet’s first virtual hackathon, and of all the awesome work they did. Most importantly, we believe the event helped bring people together. We have heard from individuals who started at Quartet during the pandemic that it made them feel better connected and engaged with the company:

“Working with people I normally don’t work with in my day to day! It was great to break out of the everyday norm, and break out of the COVID time warp. The creative ideas bouncing around re-energized me a bit”.

“Loved the creativity of the team and that everyone seemed to be having fun and working with people they don’t usually get to on problems that excited them”

Whatever 2021 brings, we know we’ll be doing another Quartet Hackathon.

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