Our Hackathons are awesome.

by Stephen Younge
March 8, 2016

Lots of companies do Hackathons these days. They’re a great way to innovate, delight customers, explore new technologies, encourage employee creativity, and have fun.

Our Hackathons are awesome. New employees tell us they are the best they have ever seen. They are incredibly intense, and they get results.

We do them twice per year for 3 crazy days, competing for cash prizes, bragging rights, and the satisfaction of delivering to customers.

Our January 2016 Hackathon was one of our biggest ever –18 teams and over 40 people

Opening Ceremonies is raucous and loud, so we go to a nearby hotel. Teams form during lunch, usually as a result of lobbying, recruiting, and cajoling weeks earlier. “You only work on what you are really passionate about,” Shelby, an Apps Engineer, explains, which is why the internal recruiting of engineers can reach a fever pitch.

Shelby was convinced by Patrick, our UX Director, to join him on a project to supercharge the new customer experience in our Cost Transparency product. Arnold, also in the UX Group, forlornly named his team ‘Han Solo’ to indicate he was all alone. At lunch, he convinced Ngoc, a Product Manager, and Julio, a Visual Designer, to join him; so the team changed their name to: ‘Han Solo and Team.’

Teams stake out conference rooms and other areas around the office. Some groups immediately decide on specific ideas. Atwell, an App Architect and Alexey, a Test Engineer, became the duo of ‘Overlay Pie,’ implementing a new visualization concept. Other teams take their time brainstorming ideas. ‘Han Solo and Team’ spent a full day just brainstorming ideas before locking in.

Great ideas need to benefit users or the business, show creativity, leverage cool technology…  but also result in a great demo at the end of the Hackathon.

The walls of our offices quickly become covered with sketches – screen designs, workflow diagrams, system architectures, and random doodles. Teams work late into the night, stopping only to wolf down food when dinner is served. Halfway through the Hackathon, conference rooms have that ‘lived-in’ look, and teams are tired, but loving it!

We encourage our engineers get out of their comfort zones. “Most Hackathons, I touch code that I have never worked on before,” Atwell admitted as he created new REST endpoints for ‘Overlay Pie.’ Shelby added, “A great thing about Hackathons is you form relationships with other engineers that you might not otherwise work with. It builds bonds. In a rapidly growing company, we need that.”

By the halfway point of the Hackathon, you see which teams are sailing smoothly along, and which teams are grappling with unexpected challenges. Some groups have a serious demeanor as they hunker down to work through them. 

Risk-taking is encouraged. “You should be willing to shoot the moon, even if it means you might crash and burn,” Atwell observed. “The worst thing that can happen is you will impress everyone with your grit!”

The final morning morning, teams polish and prepare their demos and presentations. Past winners stress the importance of putting your best foot forward. “Know your audience. Know the judges – what they value and what they’re looking for,” Shelby explains. “Customer success is the company’s #1 priority.”

“Keep it simple,” Ngoc, a Product Manager, adds. “Communicate a problem in business terms. Then show how you solve it.” It’s no coincidence the presentations sound like startup pitches. People want to win those cash prizes, and see their ideas productized!

The deadline is Friday lunchtime, and the demos commence immediately after. We move back to the hotel since the whole organization attends and it is LOUD!

Teams have 5 minutes to demo, often using props, costumes, and even songs to get their points across, spice it up, and have fun. The whole event takes over 2 hours (18 demos!). 

Dione Hedgpeth, SVP of Customer Success, was a judge for the first time. She heard buzz over the past couple of years, but was still surprised by the sheer spectacle of the demos. “The level of energy and enthusiasm was amazing,” Dione recounted, “for example, one demo was sung to the music of Bye Bye, American Pie!” 

The January 2016 Hackathon projects were wide ranging: new data visualization approaches; adding the ‘shelving’ concept from IDEs to our own admin tools; FitBit-style health reports; new ways for users to interact with Apptio Support from inside our products; even a text adventure game using our proprietary inference engine as its backend; and many, many more.

After the demos, scores are tallied and winners are chosen. Awards are presented to first, second, and third place. Spoils for the victors are sweet: $2,000 for first place, plus being immortalized on the Hackathon Hall of Fame plaque. Second and third place cash prizes are almost as huge. Stephen cautions, “the real win is productizing your Hackathon project for customers.”

Atwell should know. He has an impressive Hackathon track record, delivering massive scalability improvements, new features, and even new benchmarking products for Apptio. And that isn’t even mentioning the Apptio board game his team created once…

Dione, SVP of Customer Success, has already decided with product management to put multiple projects into the roadmap. She’s also considering how her technical services organization could do a Hackathon of their own!

After the awards are presented, we PARTY. Our January 2016 Hackathon coincided with our company party, so it was food, drinks, and dancing into the early hours of the morning.

Our Hackathons are awesome.


Interested in joining Apptio and our awesome Hackathons?  We’re hiring like crazy in our Bellevue, WA, and Louisville, CO, offices! Check out our Careers Page.

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