"Hackathons are so valuable because they are a time when we're able to think past the next day or week and just build without constraints. Taking this time to think differently pays off with new ideas.”- Pedram Keyani, Director of Engineering at Facebook
If you’re at all familiar with the tech world, you might have heard about hackathons. A hackathon is defined as “an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.” I’ll note that while it started with computer engineers, it can also be more than that.
The goal is to refresh team creativity, take a break from day-to-day tasks and habits, and refocus on the bigger mission of the organization. At Apto, that means building tools brokers love.
That’s why we started running hackathons last spring, and why we’ve continued to do them every quarter since then. For roughly three days, everyone in the company devotes time to a certain project beyond the scope of their usual job, whether it’s improving our Best Practices Library to provide brokers with more resources, smoothing out an internal business function, or most importantly, making our core technology better.
Why hackathons are so valuable
The most common critique of hackathons is that it’s expensive to take an entire company away from regular work for 2-3 days. We’re all busy people and can’t simply drop everything to hack around.
In my experience, the return on investment for hackathons is high--you get out significantly more than you put in. That’s because the event gives employees the opportunity to really use their expertise and tackle problems that are important but maybe not always high on the priority list. They are free to use their creativity and get involved in projects they’re curious or already passionate about.
Those who use an agile methodology have also noted that the employees closest to the work are the ones who know the persistent pain points--and the best ways to fix them. Hackathons give the freedom to do exactly that by encouraging innovation in those best suited to solve problems.
How we organize and run hackathons
To run our hackathons, we stole an idea from our friends at ReturnPath. Apto hackathons are run by a team lead with a deputy. At the following hackathon, the deputy becomes the lead and brings in a new deputy. We rotate hackathon leaders to introduce new ideas, generate excitement, and provide leadership opportunities for staff.
As mentioned, hackathons generally involve engineering and coding projects, but they don’t have to be focused only on those types of skills. Yes, we’ve done things like build a data enrichment integration into our product, but we’ve also created an internal wiki for staff, revamped both employee and customer onboarding, created new tools to make the data team more efficient, and much more.
We have also had product development teams take on research experiments to test out the viability of off-the-wall ideas for future product features. Things we might never get to attempt during our regular work are given their due to see if they’re worth the investment after all. (Spoiler alert: often they are.)
What hackathons mean for employee engagement
At Apto, we’re working to build a company and culture that people are excited about. We want everyone to like working here, and we want everyone focused on making commercial real estate better. Hackathons provide a break from the day-to-day routine, get the adrenaline pumping again, and foster a cross-collaborative culture. Hackathons are great for recruiting and retention, product development and innovation, and of course, they’re fun!
Want to give it a try?
You don’t have to be a tech company to adopt the principles of hackathons. If you’re part of a broker team, you can set aside time to tackle projects that aren’t always high on your to-do list but could help make your business better. Set aside two days to renew your brand or create a new value proposition, redesign your marketing collateral, brainstorm new ways to canvas the market, analyze your conversion metrics, etc. The idea is to energize your team and get everyone engaged in creative thinking.
We’ve seen a lot of success with hackathons at Apto, from team bonding to new product features and beyond!