From charity to passion projects, this is how 4 Colorado companies do hackathons

April Bohnert

Let’s be honest: fast-growing tech companies can be pretty heads down places. And when you’re hyper-focused on completing the day’s tasks, it can be hard to get those creative juices flowing. But innovation is undoubtedly a driving factor for success in the tech industry, and many companies today use hackathons as a way to jolt people out of the daily grind and shift their focus to big picture problems that need to be solved.

We asked four Colorado tech companies to share how they use hackathons to accelerate progress and shake up the day-to-day routine. Here’s what they had to say.

 

Credera’s whole mission is to solve complex business and technology challenges, and what better way to do that than a hackathon? But Credera’s annual hackathon, OpenGive, isn’t about solving problems for their clients or their business. It’s about giving back to the local community. This year, Credera held their OpenGive hackathon here in Denver, helping three local nonprofits focused on improving STEM education in schools.

Patrick Alexander, senior talent acquisition specialist for Credera, explained the reason behind OpenGive and what it means to his team.

Walk us through a typical hackathon at Credera.

The Credera team is very passionate when it comes to technology and solving problems, so the majority of our team participates. Most recently, when the event was focused on helping the Colorado community, the entire office turned out for support.

Why do you do hackathons?

Hackathons are an excellent way to help the community around you, form strong relationships between team members, and learn more about a technology you might now use on a daily basis. The events fit perfectly into Credera’s culture due to our team members having a strong passion for constant learning and solving problems to help the community.

What’s the coolest thing to come out of one of your hackathons?

We held our first hackathon that Credera organized this year and we learned a lot about what it takes to hold a successful event, but the greatest thing that we accomplished was simply working towards providing a solution to nonprofits that impact the lives of children at critical times in their lives.  

These nonprofits work towards bettering the community around them on a daily basis, and it was the least we could to give back. Credera team members are still working on ensuring the solution we provide will be effective in improving their processes, and we are very excited for the opportunity to help.

 

Shutterstock has made a name for itself as a giant in the stock photo industry and there’s a reason for that: they make innovation and ideation a priority — and they have fun doing it.

Each year, they host three or four hackathons. Code Rage is a quarterly hackathon dedicated specifically to technology and product development. The cleverly named Hack to the Future, on the other hand, is a 24-hour, company-wide event.

In preparation for their seventh annual Hack to the Future, Oz Ruiz, director of engineering and the Denver office lead, gave us a glimpse into their innovation process.

Walk us through a typical hackathon at Shutterstock.

We encourage all employees to participate in Hack to the Future. Each team represents at least four different departments within the company to help employees meet new people and work together to develop a creative solution to a problem that improves the lives of our customers. 

We also host fun activities during the event, including trivia, foosball tournaments, happy hour, catered meals and late night snacks. Hack to the Future is a true representation of Shutterstock’s culture. There is nothing greater than cheering on your colleagues as they live demo their extraordinary hacks, and witnessing first-hand the incredible talent and creativity of the Shutterstock team.

The Code Rage hackathons allow the technology and product teams to step away from their day jobs to get to know their team members and explore their creativity.

Why do you do hackathons?

We host hackathons at Shutterstock for a few reasons: to help employees meet new team members and collaborate across departments; to create innovative solutions to customer problems by giving employees the opportunity to explore and build upon their ideas; and to celebrate our employees and culture by seeing what we can accomplish when we work together toward a common goal.

What’s the coolest thing to come out of one of your hackathons?

During both Hack to the Future and Code Rage, employees demo many exceptional hacks that we try to place on a path to production. One of the coolest hacks we had in recent years that went into production is Shutterstock Tab, a chrome extension that helps inspire Chrome users with a different Shutterstock image every time they open a new tab. You can also search the Shutterstock site at the top, see the photo and contributor name of the current image in the bottom left, and find other information such as time and weather.


 

Now in its 19th year of business, Healthgrades is far from a startup — but they still innovate like a small shop with the help of annual hackathons. In addition to regular creative design sprints, Healthgrades holds a company-wide hackathon called HG Challenge, which gives teams and participants from every area of the business the opportunity to compete for a grand prize in the “Shark Tank.”

Lindsay Sharon, Healthgrades’ VP of marketing, shared how HG Challenge brings colleagues together and generates energy and excitement around their work.

Walk us through a typical hackathon at Healthgrades.

The best thing about a typical hackathon at Healthgrades is that it is truly a company-wide event. Colleagues from every campus, every department, every role in the organization are invited to participate — either by pitching an idea or joining a team.  

HG Challenge runs 3.5 days, starting with a high-energy, rapid-fire pitch night and closing with an inspiring “Shark Tank” filled with thoughtful and impressive demos to our executive management team and an audience of peers. The halls — across all four campuses — buzz with excitement all week.

Why do you do hackathons?

Healthgrades hosts hackathons for a variety of reasons, but there are two primary objectives: to improve morale and foster collaboration and team-building, and to encourage innovation, risk-taking and agile principles for developing code.

What’s the coolest thing to come out of one of your hackathons?

A contagious energy that inspired teams to think and work differently, carrying over into their daily work; exposure for employees that led to promotions or inspired their kids to “dream big”; friendships and professional relationships that otherwise would not have existed; the executive management team dressing up and performing to songs in front of the whole company; a cross-campus task force that helped build bridges across departments for other parts of the organization.

Aside from all of that, Shark Tank winners have the opportunity for their ideas to be put into production at Healthgrades. This has included a new Alexa skill for scheduling, a plugin to extend Healthgrades content to third party sites, consumer features such as comparing providers and text message confirmation for appointments, and overall improved performance of Healthgrades.com.

 

CA Technologies, which acquired Boulder-based Rally Software in 2015, provides IT management solutions and agile business services that help their clients stay competitive. They hold week-long internal hackathons every quarter that allow team members to put scheduled projects aside and focus on projects they’re passionate about. But they also take it a step further by hosting hackathons at conferences and on-site at their customers’ offices, and even getting clients involved in their internal hackathons.

Senior principal software engineer Kyle Morse shed some light on their long-standing tradition of hackathons and why they work.

Walk us through a typical hackathon at CA Technologies.

The atmosphere at a typical hackathon is pretty calm. There’s definitely a buzz around the office, lots of headphones and people are having fun. It’s a nice breath of fresh air after completing work for the quarter.

There tend to be more individual projects than team ones. We have been trying to encourage more team projects. We also encourage looking outside of engineering for help.

There are two rules for the week: follow your passion and demo what you did. Then, on the following Monday, we watch everyone's videos, demos and screen captures. It is my favorite part of the hackathon!

The week following the hackathon is our “Big Room Planning,” which is an opportunity to collaborate with teams working in a shared part of the business to identify dependencies, plan work, and set out a delivery plan for three months. At the end of Big Room Planning, we give out awards and trophies for the previous week's hackathon. Since our customers are onsite participating in Big Room Planning, they get to see ideas coming forth from our teams.

Why do you do hackathons?

Hackathons have always been a cornerstone of the Rally culture. It was important for us to keep that going as we became a part of CA Technologies. About two years ago, the engineering directors decided to let engineers own the hackathon process. I have always been a huge proponent of hackathons, and especially shipping cool and valuable projects to customers.

What’s the coolest thing to come out of one of your hackathons?

My biggest accomplishment — App SDK 2 — allows our customers to build their own apps on top of our product. Over a couple of years, we had introduced a version one and this was my default hackathon project for awhile.

Some other great features born from hackathon projects we recently shipped were the ability to @mention people in discussions and rich text field, hierarchical import of test cases/test steps, and search in closed projects.

 

Photo via featured companies. Some responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

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