Hacking the Hackathon: Reviving the Old School Science Fair

It all started with a simple question from my boss: “Steve, would you like to be in charge of a at MeetUp?” On the surface, it seemed like an innocuous request since MuleSoft Engineering typically does hackathons about twice a year or so.  “Sure,” I thought. “I’ll just get the engineers to self-organize into project teams, order them some pizza, and then sit back and relax while the amazing projects come rolling in.” However, I quickly realized that there was much more to this hackathon than initially met the eye; it would take a considerable amount of careful planning and preparation by a dedicated team of people to pull it off.

Before we go further discussing the hackathon, let us first back up and talk about MeetUp.  MeetUp is a scene.  Every year, MuleSoft asks all of its employees around the world, at the time over 800 people, to fly to San Diego for an entire week of team building, strategic planning, brainstorming, and, in general, getting everyone from all disciplines on the same page heading into the new working year.  One minute you’ll be in an all-hands session listening to our CEO talk about our vision, and the next you’ll be sharing a beer with a customer success team from Australia, where you’ll discuss the latest customer needs for your products.

On its own, MeetUp is both invigorating and overwhelming at the same time, with so many people running around trying to accomplish as much as possible during that one week.  How on earth were we supposed to fit a hackathon somewhere in the middle of all that?  

Logistically speaking, how would we bring over 150 engineers together to hack away on projects using the hotel WiFi? They might cause all kinds of congestion and run into bandwidth limits!  Further, our leadership really wanted to involve teams outside of in the hackathon, in order to take advantage of the fact that the entire company is at MeetUp and can gain insight into the work the team does. And finally, how could we best make use of this external involvement, get people outside of excited without the whole thing degrading into an unorganized mess?

These were the challenges that we faced us as we planned the event.  Amazingly enough, we managed to pull it off in a slightly surprising way.  We turned our hackathon into an old-school science fair!

Pre-MeetUp Planning

Initially, the prospect of involving the entire company in the hackathon, especially non-technical folks, seemed daunting. However, the more we thought about it the more we realized that – if executed correctly – having  people outside of engineering join the hackathon could be a tremendous asset.  That group included hundreds of people that work with our customers on a daily basis to architect solutions, address their business needs, or solve problems they are having with our platform.  Customer Success Managers, Architects, Solutions Consultants, and Sales Engineers, you name it. They all had troves of knowledge we could mine and put to use in a hackathon.

And that is exactly what we did.  We conducted extensive interviews and brainstorming sessions with these folks to extract all of their product feedback––both good and bad. We consolidated the feedback and then armed the hackathon teams with valuable insights, which they can use to hack together all kinds of product improvements and new features.

As great as these brainstorming sessions proved to be for driving quality hackathon projects, we didn’t want that outside involvement to just end there.  Since everyone was already at MeetUp during the hackathon, we had the opportunity to complete the circle and get the same people from outside of engineering to participate in the project review process.  

After all, how great would it be if you submitted a customer complaint one day, and were presented with an awesome solution from engineering the next?  However, it would not work to just have a traditional project review session where each team takes turns demoing their project to a large group.  It would take way too long to sit through the presentations of all projects; people would quickly lose interest.  That was when the idea for a science fair was born!

mulesoft hackathon

Bringing Back the Old School with a Science Fair-style Hackathon

If you have never attended a youth science fair before then let me set the stage.  Imagine an auditorium full of eager students showing off a variety of science projects–– from something extremely simple, like a man-made volcano made from baking soda, vinegar, and some red food coloring, to incredibly complex and far-reaching scientific endeavors like new types of disease-screening medical devices or advanced computer simulations on the potential effects of climate change.  

Each student is responsible for creating a poster board explaining their project in plain english with colorful graphics, so that others can better understand the scientific problem statement and how the said project attempts to solve the problem.  The students are also required to engage with anyone that stops by their booth to discuss their project and they also have to present to a panel of judges that will declare winners for the event.

Usually, science fairs are tons of fun for everyone involved. Sciences fairs encourage team work between the students who work on the projects and drive engagement amongst the event attendees, who normally might not spend much time or energy thinking about scientific endeavors or talking directly with “scientists.”  We wanted to bring the “science fair” experience to our hackathon to showcase the engineering team’s projects, and that is exactly what we did!

mulesoft hackathon

 

Hackathon: Launching into Hyperspace

The hackathon itself took place over the course of two days at MeetUp, with over 150 participants completing 33 projects in various fields, including improving our customer experience and adding far-reaching new functionalities to our platform that will keep us innovating years into the future.  Couches and bean bags were brought into the room to keep teams happy and productive as they worked long into the night. We even brought a local BBQ food truck to feed everyone in-between their countless trips to get coffee.  

We brought art materials such as poster boards, colored cardboard papers, colored pens and pencils, scissors, glue, and more to enable teams to create elaborate displays for the science fair.  It was truly inspiring to see how enthusiastic the engineers were and how much they embraced the science fair concept. Some teams went so far as to combine multiple poster boards into even larger displays, while other teams brought outside materials such as Christmas tree string lights or electric motors to add display effects and movement.  I knew things were getting really crazy when a team asked if there was an extra soldering iron for them put together a micro-controller circuit board to control their booth display!

mulesoft hackathon

For over two hours during the science fair, teams proudly presented their hackathon projects to all MeetUp attendees that participated. All in all, there were  well over 500 people.  Marketing, sales, finance, people operations, and executive leadership participated in discussions with engineers to get a deeper understanding of how engineering teams apply technology to solve problems, and, by extension, develop new products within the company.  

Many of those same people later said that the science fair was their favorite part of MeetUp!  To make things even more interesting, attendees were given a wooden nickel with the MuleSoft logo on it, which they could use to cast their vote for their favorite project––similar to The People’s Choice Award.  By giving attendees a stake in the process, we increased their engagement, as they agonized over which one of their favorite projects to give their token to.

Overall, the whole event was a tremendous success for everyone involved, and I would highly encourage other hackathon organizers and participants to evaluate if this format is right for their future events.  We found the process highly effective in getting engineers and non-engineers within our company to communicate better with one another, and this will provide large dividends in the future, especially as MuleSoft expands its product suite, customer base, and employee count.


 


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