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How to run a (great!) hackathon

Bhavna Balani, 8 minute read

In honor of National Engineers Week, we’re highlighting the outstanding contributions that our diverse and brilliant workforce makes to Pega. One way we have fun and bring excitement to the development process is through hosting a hackathon.

Just this month Pega held its 7th Hackathon – a 24-hour developer sprint where teams chose projects to improve our software and/or internal processes. As we look back on seven years, we are stunned at the growth and excitement. We’ve grown from 25 participants and 12 projects in our first Cambridge event, to more than 530 participants and 130 projects globally. Along the way, we’ve learned a thing or two. Check out what inspires us to host hackathons, and how to make them great.

The benefits of a hackathon

Innovation is the number one benefit. When you take all of your development talent and any other staff, and give them the opportunity to focus for a day on productivity speedbumps that they may encounter regularly, the results can be surprising. Challenges that they may never have the time to address, like trying to build a new tool, process, or app, are brainstormed and attacked during a hackathon. There are no restrictions on creativity. The event gives your staff permission to look for new ways to solve old problems, and a dedicated time frame in which to do it.

It also drives a developer-centric culture where it’s encouraged to try something out, fail fast, get immediate feedback, and make rapid changes. This mirrors our company’s Agile approach to development and showcases how we embrace agility to drive outcomes. Plus, it teaches our staff and future leaders how they can affect big changes within our own business.

Finally, the learning that happens from internal networking and participation is always amazing and no less important. Staff are grouped based on the ideas they want to work on. Often, people who have never worked together before, never been on a project together, or may not even work in the same office, come together. Fueled by endless soda, snacks, and a desire to submit an award-winning deliverable, they build relationships that go beyond the data and the project. Regardless of the outcome of the technical projects, the social aspect of making new friends and fostering connections in the workplace is immeasurable.

Get passionate and get started

First, you need to find really passionate individuals that are excited about the prospect of an event that will take over your company for a day. It’s a team effort. You need to get commitments from top to bottom in the organization, then stay motivated and connected with colleagues to increase the excitement throughout the company.

At Pega, we’ve been fortunate to have great leadership that wants to be involved. People are invested in making the hackathon successful at every level of our organization. They show up at all of our ceremonies and meetings, and push the promotion of the event. For example, this year 17 of our senior staff volunteered to participate on regional panels, helping to review projects and choose the finalists for each office region. Then a four person executive panel, including our CEO, Alan Trefler, select the champions from a curated list of regional finalists. We host viewing parties in our offices around the globe to announce the project results and recognize all of the winners. We even host a People’s Choice award that is based on company-wide votes from all employees. Bottom line: If you’re going to talk about being an innovative and game-changing culture, you need to have people at all levels committed to that idea.

It’s not just for developers – ways to involve less technical people

We encourage participation at every level, and have come up with ways to involve staff that aren’t technical gurus. These folks are an important part of a team and can bring unique insight to a project – like what impedes productivity or limits success. And we involve them from the beginning, brainstorming with their project group to get the benefit of their ideas and opinions. In fact, we encourage teams to devote at least a day of their time to team brainstorming prior to the hackathon. Different viewpoints can be critical in helping to identify problems and think up potential solutions.

Every year we ask ourselves, how can we pair up more development and non-development folks for hackathon? This year we established a special VIP (Volunteer in Pega) program to encourage non-technical staff to participate. VIP connects our developer culture with individuals in other departments by inviting technically gifted staff to participate as a VIP, then pairing them up with coworkers with a range of skills, and challenging them to come up with a project that will enhance Pega’s work culture. We’ve had a good response, and the ideas that emerged as a result of this program were creative, like a contract creation bot, and guided office floor maps.

Also new to our hackathon this year is the involvement of students enrolled in our University Academic Programs. We invited students who are taking university courses in Pega to participate. They got to experience Pega’s culture and people, leverage their Pega knowledge, and do something fun and meaningful while still in school. Feedback from our teams on the inclusion of the students has been positive, and we hope to continue to build relationships with these students long after the Hackathon is ended.

Select a time that makes sense for your organization

Allow yourself six months for planning, and plug into your organization’s calendar at a time that makes the most sense. For example, we don’t want to get in the way of getting great software out to our customers on regular iterations, so we organize our hackathon events to ensure we don’t disrupt planned software release dates.

Once you’ve picked the date, market the event

To make sure that you have the resources you need in every office to make the hackathon successful, establish a strong global coordination team your regional offices. As previously mentioned, getting buy-in at the executive level throughout the organization helps foster success. We promote the event internally via email announcements, team announcements, and posters. An internal website is created that provides an overview of the event, the goals, details, and images from past events, and encourages everyone to get involved. To keep participants excited, we encourage teams to post photos to our Twitter and Instagram accounts with dedicated hashtags for the event. (To keep them fed, we supply plenty of catered food, snacks, drinks, and treats). Plus, participants get custom T-shirts that they proudly wear throughout the year like rockstars, generating continual interest in the hackathon.

And, of course, give out prizes

Pega gives out lots of prizes in a variety of categories to recognize the effort and enthusiasm of our teams – regional project awards, leadership awards, best-in-class awards, plus a raffle open to everyone who participates. When you see the excitement of so many of your peers and colleagues, it’s really motivating.

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About the Author

Bhavna Balani is a senior product manager with a decade of experience in software development and leading successful project deliveries.

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