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Hackathon 2020: A Product Manager’s Tips for Bringing Company Together

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By Daniel Pohl, Director of Product Management


Last week, we wrapped up our annual Logicworks Hackathon. It was an awesome event!

Obviously, this year’s Hackathon was a bit different: all teams were remote and had to collaborate virtually. But it was also an important opportunity to encourage collaboration across teams and departments, especially during these isolating times.

If you’re planning on hosting a Hackathon at your company, here are a few tips – and some highlights from our Hackathon – that we hope help you bring team members together.


Changes to 2020 Hackathon

In past Hackathons, the most common participants were pre-formed teams of software developers. Logicworks’ leadership team made three key changes to encourage more participation from semi-technical and non-technical employees from across the company – employees that might not typically join a Hackathon. Here are the changes we made this year:

    1. Logicworks encouraged employees without teams to sign up. These participants were then placed on ad-hoc teams led by a product manager.  The product manager was tasked with driving a product execution process that made best use of the talents on their team.
    2. To encourage future cross-team collaboration, Logicworks purposefully separated individuals that already routinely work with each other. Instead, these four ad-hoc Hackathon teams were comprised of employees across divisions and geographies – many of whom had never met before. These ad-hoc teams were led by product managers – more on that below.
    3. Logicworks generously offered an extra vacation day to anyone participating in the Hackathon!

Four of the Hackathon teams were created in this ad-hoc way (the other teams were more traditional pre-formed groups of software developers that wished to create something together).

As an example, I led one of these ad-hoc teams. My team also included our Chief Information Security Officer, our IT Systems Admin, a database architect, and a summer intern.


Judging Hackathon Teams

The Hackathon teams are judged by any interested employees at Logicworks. Teams have 24-hours to create something and then 5 minutes to present their creation to judges, who award points based on these criteria:

    • Innovation: quality of the idea
    • Execution: quality of the work performed during hackathon
    • Applicability to Logicworks: how it helps Logicworks employees or clients perform smarter
    • 2020 Bonus Category: Helps form connections between teams

How to Organize Your Hackathon Team

Leading a Hackathon team of people who might not know each other, or have different levels of engineering experience, has unique challenges. That’s why it’s so important to have a semi-structured approach to choosing and refining your Hackathon idea.

In the first hour of Hackathon, I virtually gathered my team – meeting some of the newer employees for the first time.  During two brainstorming sessions we generated 10 quality ideas for Hackathon projects.

The team iterated on the feasibility and strength of each product idea – eliminating the weakest product candidates each iteration.  Finally, we aligned on a top choice: making it possible for our new Microsoft Teams app to display organizational diagrams, like this:

We could achieve this product result by scripting a merge of employee information from several disparate data sources into our Active Directory.  This idea correlated to the judging criteria and fit well with our team members’ skill sets (and administrative AD permissions!).

Our product idea would require 2 steps:

    • Initial merge of existing employee information into Active Directory
    • People team process improvements/integrations to keep Active Directory updated

For the Hackathon, we defined our MVP (Minimally Viable Product) as step 1 – the initial merge.  Our team had the skill sets, permissions, and time allotment to succeed only on this step.  Our MVP met the most important criteria – the users could enjoy useful new functionality once released.

Step 2 was documented as post-Hackathon “roadmap”.


Focusing on Product Value as the Hackathon Leader

As my team started coding, I focused on how to present our creation to the judges.  I focused our presentation around key product values:

    • Employees can now easily generate organizational diagrams, which makes it easier to…
        • …understand where each individual fits within the larger company structure
        • …learn the different groups, especially for new employees
    • Employees can interact with this organizational structure information within MS Teams, a tool that they already use day-to-day
    • Logicworks can discontinue using a different organizational structure tool that many employees didn’t know about, which doesn’t integrate with day-to-day tools, and costs the company licensing fees

Our presentation also featured a live demo of the newly improved MS Teams generating organizational diagrams and a not-so-gentle push that “this is done…in production…today…go ahead and use it”!

Equally important is what our presentation did not focus on:

    • The PowerShell data merge script
    • Active Directory technical details
    • Any other detail that didn’t relate to the judging criteria

As we practiced our 5-minute presentation, I coached my team members to not “apologize” for the simplicity of the data merge script and the limited scope of our MVP.  Instead, we highlighted the product’s value, the MVP’s “in-production” status, and the clear product roadmap.


Product Managers Align Teams

After the judging was over, one clear theme emerged: those ad-hoc, cross-departmental teams were the top three winning teams. We thought this was exciting because it proves that the goal of the Hackathon – to bring people together across teams – worked!

These teams were also led by members of the product management team. I’m proud of that team for so effectively demonstrating the value of technical product management. Here’s what the teams led by product managers all did great:

  • Aligned their teams on product ideas that:
      • could be explained with an “elevator pitch”
      • related to the judging criteria
      • made great use of their cross-functional teams’ skill sets
  • Concentrated their teams’ 24-hours of development on an MVP achievable within that compressed period and “road-mapped” all else
  • Focused their presentations to highlight product values instead of technical prowess

In short, these 4 teams followed a best-practice product management principles  – but compressed into a 24-hour period.

If you’re thinking of running a Hackathon in these unusual times, I hope you take our advice: do things differently this year! This is an opportunity to focus on delivering real value to the company and inspiring people to come together. We had a blast and hope that you do, too.



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