Heck of a Hack

HR Director Blair Todd briefing the Dominion hackathon teams

Earlier this month, we held our first company hackathon in our new office. It proved to be a great day and a tremendous learning experience for our company and particularly all of the employees who got the chance to participate. I had the opportunity to help facilitate the day’s activities. I thought take a moment to reflect on what I thought was a very successful event.

Pulling the Hackathon Together

As we began organizing our hack, one of the key decisions we had to make was to identify what we wanted to structure the hack around. We debated a number of ideas. Ultimately, we decided to target a current back-office goal to enhance our performance review processes. We liked this idea for a number of reasons:

  • It represented a real need for our company, preventing us from having to manufacture something just for the hack.
  • All of our employees bring a wide range of first-hand experience with different review/feedback processes throughout their careers.
  • This area had the potential to be a theme for future hackathons, each building upon the accomplishments of the previous hacks.

With this, our HR Director, Blair Todd, stepped up as a willing and capable product owner and off we went.

Hacking with a Purpose

To start the hack, we discussed the 5 goals we aimed to achieve by having this event:

  • Bring our employees together – As a consulting company, our employees are often delivering on-site at their clients, making it a challenge for everyone to stay in touch. This hack allowed us to get everyone together, build and strengthen our relationships, share our ideas, and catch up with our friends and colleagues.
  • Innovate, experiment, learn – We value the ideas and innovations our employees bring to their clients each day. We also strongly believe in fostering a learning culture that encourages and enables professional growth. The hackathon let us tap into our collective creativity and gave us a platform to help build and improve the skills of our employees.
  • Practice and refine agile processes and concepts – Agile is at the heart of all of our IT modernization initiatives. It serves as a cornerstone for how we execute. This hack gave us the opportunity to apply and refine our Agile skills and execution, to learn from each other’s Agile experiences and knowledge, and to deepen our expertise developing Agile artifacts within our Agile tools.
  • Build something – Agile places focus on developing an MVP, or minimum viable product, which provides just enough features to enable validated learning about the product and its continued development. Similarly, we wanted the teams to place a focus on developing something that could serve as a starting point for discussion and feedback, letting the teams know that what gets presented at the end of the hack is intended to more of a demo than a presentation.
  • Have fun! – Last, but certainly not least, we sincerely wanted our employees to have an enjoyable experience away from their typical daily activities. We did our part to keep the teams well fed and hydrated throughout the day and tried to keep the atmosphere light. They were given the freedom to work on whatever each team thought they’d be best at.

We split the group into 3 different Agile teams, each comprised of a mixture of developers, analysts, and testers. All brought their own specializations and areas of expertise. Prior to the hack, we asked each team to schedule a call. This allowed them to discuss some initial ideas/plans, get to know their teammates a little more, and to the extent possible, come up with an initial strategy and approach.

To support the teams, we staged reference data as well as some user story inputs. The product owner & technical support were made available to the teams throughout the day. We also configured our internal Agile stack (JIRA, Confluence, Java, etc.) to allow each team to have their own space in which to execute their continuous integration pipeline.

After we laid out the schedule for the day (read: Eat, Hack, Eat, Hack, Drink, Demo), we set the teams loose to start.

A TeraThink team at the hack-a-thon planning their sprintHacking a Future

A number of us got to observe the teams throughout the day. This gave us some valuable insights into some of the challenges that each of the teams ran into and how they ultimately overcame them. It was very exciting to see all of the teams fully engaged in the hack, eager to formulate and build a solution they could present to the group at the end of the day.

Each team, with their own nuances and techniques, went through the process of decomposing the day into sprints, scheduling time with the product owner, developing their supporting stories in JIRA, and setting milestones they wanted to achieve throughout the day.

I was very happy to witness the same characteristics that we see from our teams when serving their clients. The teams used creative thinking, innovative problem solving, and collaborative approaches that welcomed the exchange of ideas. Additionally, all the participants demonstrated a willingness to help others in need, dedication, and a sense of urgency to get the job done.

Looking at the Results

At the end of the day, we all gathered to debrief on the day’s events and see what each of the teams created. We asked the teams to give a 5-10 minute presentation/demo, giving us an overview of their approach and the solution they produced. We recruited a team of judges, comprised of the product owner and a number of our senior executives, to evaluate the team’s solutions in a number of categories.

The judges assessed each solution on 4 key areas including, user experience, agile process, innovation/creativity, and technical quality. The teams presented something unique, with solutions ranging from a backend database storage solution, to an app that provided core goal setting functionality and role-based access, to a visual analytics-based solution that leveraged Tableau.

The winning solution ended up being the goal setting app. We were impressed with what they were able to deliver in the very limited time they had. It was clear that all of the team members contributed to the final solution and the presentation itself was also well-delivered. We congratulate them on their win. (Congrats A-Team!)

Ultimately it was clear that we all won on some level that day. Whether it was something learned, done to help the team, a new connection, or in a more literal sense, a foosball game, we all came away with this event with a win.

We invite you to learn more about TeraThink and how we weave fun in with success.

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on the blog of Dominion Consulting. On November 1, 2017, Dominion Consulting merged with TeraThink and are now operating jointly as TeraThink. All blog posts migrated from the Dominion Consulting website have been updated to refer to ourselves as TeraThink.]