The workplace—and space—as we know it is changing. And as we move to a model of distributed teams, bridging the virtual gap to bring teams together is more important than ever. One strategy for uniting your company under a singular purpose is holding a hackathon.
A hackathon is an event where the whole company gathers and—setting aside the daily pattern of story work and bug fixes—focuses exclusively on special projects that super-charge a team and what they create. Hackathons provide an infusion of creative energy. The change in speed and perspective often leads to different paths with great outcomes that we would otherwise have missed.
At Coda, we assemble the entire company four times per year (once per quarter) for a hackathon. Not only have some of our best ideas come of this tradition, but hackathons by nature also encourage unexpected teams to form. These connections make all the difference as people go back to their home offices.
Three pillars of virtual hackathons
While our hackathons have been traditionally in-person, we've adapted our planning strategy and pre-requisites by defining three key pillars of hackathons that are compatible with virtual teams.
Establish common spaces.
Because a virtual hackathon takes place, well, virtually, common spaces should be established to recreate the everyone-in-the-office-at-the-same-time feel of an in-person hackathon. These spaces might look and feel differently depending on the work styles, schedules, and bandwidth of your team. Encourage each team to try a combination of the following:
- Set up a master hackathon doc where everyone can pitch and vote on ideas. Once teams have formed, additional Coda docs can be spun up to accommodate individual teams and projects.
- Whether communication is synchronous or asynchronous, you're going to need space to just talk out plans. Dedicated Slack channels route conversations about the hackathon to a place where others can participate or follow along without getting lost in other work-related chatter.
- Need to brainstorm? Jump on a video call to get the specifics of your projects nailed down. Want to work "next" to someone? Keep the room open for anyone who might want to jump in when they have the time.
- Keep your mocks up-to-date and pretty, too.
Ad-hoc dev environment
- You're probably going to want to play around with code. Best to do it somewhere other than Master.
Inspire and coordinate ideas.
Making the world a better place. Building new tools for a subset of users. Using the product in unexpected ways. Setting a specific theme for your hackathon helps spur ideas. And while everyone should use the theme as inspiration, don't be too strict on theme adherence—you never know what kind of ideas people will pitch. Once your theme is set, here are a few steps to collect and coordinate ideas:
You've shared the hackathon plans and theme with the team. Now let everyone add ideas in this table during the weeks leading up to the hackathon.
Remember that one purpose of the hackathon is to bring everyone together. Setting a schedule helps your team separate "work" time from other opportunities to bond. Carve out time for virtual mealtime, snacktime, and socialization.
Call for the
Everyone will need to sell their own idea. But before they do, have them detail their idea in this table.
The team has heard the pitches, and now it's time to get on board. Have everyone designate their project preference in this table to form teams.
The project work is complete(ish), and now it's time to show off what has been accomplished. Coordinate the presentations with this table.
Don't forget the most important part. Make sure you link to important docs and mocks, and record your thoughts.
Don't forget to have fun.
Sure, hackathons are hard, lightning-speed work for all involved, but fun is at the very root of the event. When you're hosting an in-person hackathon, spring for great snacks and coffee. If you're organizing a virtual hackathon, you might need to be a bit more creative, but there are still plenty of opportunities to have fun.
Virtual happy hours
- When the day is done, transform those Zoom rooms into something a bit lighter. Set a theme or let the conversation flow organically. BYOB, of course.
Virtual movie night
- Gather the team around yet another Zoom room for a communal movie showing. Can't decide on which movie to show? Set up a voting table to ask and vote on suggestions.
Virtual spirit week
Wear a hat! Dress up your plant! Add an extra layer of camaraderie with fun challenges.
- What dinner could you eat every day? What is your favorite memory? Get to know your team even better with crowdsources questions.
Your turn: plan your own virtual hackathon with this Coda doc.
This doc is meant to be your virtual hackathon toolkit. If you're up for the challenge, go ahead and
copy the doc
on your desktop to get started.
In the rest of this doc, you'll find example tables to help you with: