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Developing solutions & team camaraderie at the same time

April 15, 2020

Like many of you, we've been working from home the past few weeks. Our temporary new workspaces come equipped with plenty of distractions — often including kids, pets and a fully‐stocked refrigerator just a few steps away.

This period of social distancing has reminded us how great it can be to sit in the same room with a few team members, bouncing ideas off one another and working together to solve a problem.

There's power in face‐to‐face, collaborative teamwork, and it's a power we feel fortunate to have witnessed firsthand shortly before this stay‐at‐home order went into effect.

Last month, prior to the social distancing shutdown, the MoreSteam development team gathered offsite for our third annual Hackathon — a two‐day period where they get to work in small teams to create something new. It's an opportunity for them to move beyond the daily grind and think creatively.

"Our team is focused on keeping up with the business throughout most of the year — we don't get a lot of time to sit and innovate," said Lindsay Van Dyne, MoreSteam's eLearning Product Manager. "In the course of our daily work we come up with creative ideas about how we might do something differently, but it's hard finding the time to act on them."

Hackathons aren't unique to MoreSteam. Many companies and universities use them to give developers a chance to think outside the box and explore new technologies. Developers enjoy it, and businesses benefit from it.

At last year's Hackathon our team created three new internal applications to improve our process. This year, the goal was to explore existing technologies that could help us become more efficient.

"As a developer in today's world, you hear so much about new technology that sounds really cool. But until you try it out for yourself, you don't really know how useful it is, or how easy it is to learn."

Nick LaRosa a Senior Software Engineer who helps organize each year's Hackathon

Two big success stories came out of this year's event:

  • An automated program that searches for broken links
  • A system that takes automated screenshots, making it easier for our Help Team to identify and solve problems

Both these programs have the potential to save hours of manual labor each week, while also improving the end product for customers.

If your organization hasn't held a Hackathon before, you might want to consider scheduling one for later this year — or potentially even holding a virtual one to keep people connected while they're working remotely.

Here are a few keys to consider to make sure your event is successful:

  • Set aside 1‐2 days where developers can focus solely on exploring new solutions
  • If it's held in‐person, schedule it away from the office to get developers away from their daily routine
  • Mix up the teams, so people are paired with team members they don't work with regularly
  • Determine focused topics for each team ahead of time, so people know what solutions they'll be exploring
  • Reserve some time at the end for everyone to share out their results with the larger team

In addition to finding solutions that could benefit your business, a Hackathon also helps by boosting team camaraderie and morale.

"It's a great opportunity to work with people you might not interact with every day, while also getting out of your comfort zone and learning new skills," said Senior Software Engineer Tyler Cummings, who organized this year's event with LaRosa. "It's a chance for us to do something fresh and experiment however we want."

It's especially satisfying when you see one of your projects work out even better than expected.

"By noon of the first day, I was on cloud nine," said Van Dyne, who worked on the automated screenshot team. "We knew we had something that would solve a problem we'd been seeing for years. Not only is it going to make our lives easier — which we're already jazzed about — but it's something you thought about. Something you made. That adds an extra layer of excitement."

Happy developers, a more efficient process, and a better end result for customers. That sounds like a win‐win‐win to us.