The Automox Hackathon: Distributed Workplace Edition

Radical efficiency took center stage at the first-ever Automox Hackathon last October when nearly two dozen teams tested their mettle, taking hacks from idea to demo in only two days – all in a distributed team environment.

What’s a hackathon?

Hackathons, also known as hack days or codefests, are social coding events where teams collaborate on short, intense software projects. While these events are a great way for computer programmers and software development experts to sharpen their technical skills, they also allow participants to collaborate outside their immediate teams and flex core skills such as communication and leadership. With employees working across the U.S. and Canada, Automox’s virtual events are an integral part of thriving in a distributed workplace.

While these events are focused on technical projects, our Hackathon facilitators knew great ideas could come from any part of the organization. To encourage participation from across the company, Automox hosted an open event where individuals with varying levels of technical experience could pitch their ideas and find engineers interested in teaming up.

Following the event’s virtual kickoff, teams had just 48 hours to bring their ideas to life. Company-sponsored snack deliveries, morning stretches, and optional afternoon dance parties on Zoom fueled participants collaborating from distributed home offices across North America.

Everyone’s hard work culminated on Demo Day, a company-wide event showcasing the teams’ final projects. The 2021 Hackathon featured five categories designed to celebrate participants’ creativity, ingenuity, and charisma, all in the name of the main theme: radical efficiency.

A panel of judges assessed the presentations against four categories: Now that changes everything, Someone might actually pay for this, Ship it, and That was pitch-perfect. The fifth category, People’s choice, was determined by an audience vote.

Category 1: Now that changes everything!

Team Cabbit took home the gold in our first category. Designed with customer experience in mind, this category is something that would make a customer have an aha! moment. Team Cabbit’s pitch was inspired by the idea of alleviating customer strain. Cody D. said the group wanted to give control back to those who matter most: the users.

“Find something that delivers high impact and that you can energize those around you to want to work on,” he said. “Having a pitch that resonated with something that annoyed everyone, including customers, won the vote for impact.”

Hackathons create a motivating force of change and allow people across the company to meet and collaborate with others, according to Cody. “They bring together members of the company at large to engage in something not only fun but useful,” he said.

Category 2: Someone might actually pay for this…

The sales-focused category “Someone might actually pay for this!” was all about setting Automox apart in a big way. Team Guacamole went straight to the source for their winning inspiration – customer feedback.

“We decided to work on something that our customers are asking for,” said James M. “We demonstrated a working product feature, shown in the context of our existing application, to really sell its feasibility.” The Hackathon gave Team Guacamole a valuable opportunity to play around with technical solutions that could help plan for time and resources when the feature is actually being implemented.

“What I loved most about our Hackathon though, were all the amazing ideas other teams brought forward that weren’t on anyone’s radar and that made people stop and say wow,” James said.

Category 3: Ship it

Production-ready code is not expected during a Hackathon, but you never know what can be accomplished in 48 hours. Team Connect the Dots claimed first in the “Ship it!” category with their customer-ready hack.

“The autonomy to really run with the project allowed us to take our quickest approach to a prototype and truly show off our intentions without being bound by the day-to-day needs of any engineering and product team,” Zac Y. said. The team kept their pitch customer-focused with flashes of their longer-term vision.

“Dedicated time focused on working as a small team, brainstorming, and building with the intention of delivering as quickly as possible instills excitement and allows for an organization to embrace innovation and varying thought,” according to Zac. Regardless of the outcome, Hackathons are an investment in your people, their ideas, and – ultimately – customers.

Category 4: That was pitch-perfect

It was Team Heka + Shai who worked the (Zoom) room and won this category. “Enabling the audience to move quickly back and forth between your proof of concept and what a production-ready implementation could look like is key to selling your pitch,” said Samuel B.

“There are many rich datasets to analyze and leverage in order to help customers better understand and improve their IT infrastructures and security postures,” Samuel said. Reimagining how to use this existing data inspired the team’s concept.

According to Samuel, Hackathons are an important piece of the larger development cycle. “Hackathons offer a way to explore higher risk opportunities that might not be on existing product roadmaps and provide ways for teams that might normally interact to exchange ideas.”

Category 5: People’s choice

Team TBD (Hammer + Anvil) claimed the “People’s choice” category with a hack inspired by a 3D graphics program. “If a node editor in a program like Blender 3D is capable of putting together a shader that runs on a graphics card, there is no reason the same capabilities couldn't be applied to a Worklet,” James B. says. This hack would allow people to create complex Worklets without deep scripting knowledge.

According to James, paying attention to what customers want and going beyond what the business has already seen is what makes a winning Hackathon pitch. “It isn't enough to do something that is already in the works or planned,” James says. “The goal is to show the business value in something that they have overlooked.”

Hackathons give people the chance to pursue interesting work that isn't necessarily within the purview of their team or day-to-day work. It also allows employees to branch out, talk to new folks, and learn something new, according to James.

While hosting a Hackathon in a distributed environment might seem like a challenge to some, at Automox virtual collaboration and bonding are core to creating a workplace that is flexible, innovative, and inclusive. In an office-free environment, it’s important to create opportunities for employees to foster connections and have fun.

“Hackathons are about learning, branching out, and having a good time. If you aren't doing at least one of those things, you are doing it wrong,” says James.

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