Qumulo’s hackathon in April was our first fully-virtual hackathon. In our earlier blog post about our hackathon, we talked about the importance of the event for our employees to embrace our culture and try something new. As we prepare for our second virtual hackathon, we’ve reflected on some tips and best practices to share with you about effective collaboration and putting on a successful, engaging event with your teams.

1. Firstly, Make it Fun

A hackathon provides a great opportunity to encourage team members to get connected with their peers — an opportunity that remote workers don’t always have. Encouraging people to come together as a community early for the hackathon helps promote a sense of inclusion and belonging. We created a Slack channel for the April hackathon and encouraged people to start talking about project ideas they were passionate about early to help generate excitement for the event.

We also created prizes and incentives for participating in activities for the hackathon. Doing things like posting a picture of your hackathon workstation, your pet, or your virtual team meeting earned our participants points towards prizes. Sharing funny pictures or personal details helped everyone stay connected across teams even though they weren’t working together, in-person.

Finally, when planning a hackathon, it is important to set meaningful expectations with participants to make sure that everyone has a great experience. Make it clear that you don’t have to get production-quality code checked in by the end of the hackathon, and you certainly shouldn’t have to stay up all night to be successful. People should have fun even if their project didn’t turn out quite like they expected.

2. Carve Out Time For Creativity

Some people think they aren’t the “creative type”, but everyone can be creative if you make time for it. People are often more inspired to be creative when they are given a healthy environment and space to generate ideas. With so many workforces now working remotely, there are several ways to create flexible, yet collaborative, ways of generating ideas.

With a virtual workforce, we have a wide reach that can accomplish generating inspiration and ideas with your coworkers asynchronously. Create a shared document that is open to everyone across all disciplines. Here, team members can share their problems, frustrations, and concerns, but also things that inspire them, interesting technologies, or seemingly outlandish questions. Invite people to build on others’ ideas to develop them further or propose new solutions. In this stage, no idea is a bad idea. Project ideas can be refined and polished later.

As opposed to a group idea generation exercise, some ideas are best generated through self reflection. We created a worksheet for participants who were interested in an individual guided creativity worksheet. This worksheet walked participants through the following phases:

  • Gather resources to spark inspiration
    • Find a problem to solve: What has annoyed you recently? What are some tasks that are frustrating to get done?
    • Learn something new: What technology seems interesting to you? What attitude would you like to convey with your project? (funny, interesting, helpful, etc.)
  • Generate project ideas
    • After you’ve gathered inspiration, generate as many ideas as you can think of. This can be in either the format, “What is the problem you are trying to solve” or “What is the thing you are trying to learn?” based on your own personal goals.

Creating multiple opportunities and ways for people to generate ideas will help encourage participation from a diverse set of people.

3. Create Structure for Sharing Ideas

After employees have generated lots of ideas, it’s important to take time to meet together as a group to share and refine the best ideas for the project. This encourages new connections between people to be made to share passion and enthusiasm.

To help foster a creative and engaging environment in a large group video call, we utilized the expertise of one of our Agile Coaches here at Qumulo, Aki Namioka. Aki has been an Agile practitioner since 2001 and has experience facilitating meetings using Liberating Structures. From Aki:

Part of the challenge of a virtual brainstorming meeting is to provide an experience that feels spontaneous and casual to the participants, but also one where there is enough structure to avoid awkward Zoom moments. Thinking through the flow of the brainstorming session ahead of time, and creating a playbook that will be used by the Facilitator during the session is critical. In addition, if Zoom breakout rooms are used to help facilitate conversation in small groups, it is necessary to have a Zoom Host available to manipulate the breakout rooms, as well as a Facilitator who is running the meeting.

Using these techniques we broke the large group up into four person discussion groups and utilized the following structure for our Pitch Session Workshop:

At the end of the workshop session, everyone had a chance to pitch their idea to the group to share their refined ideas more broadly and try to recruit interested team members.

Even though process is often hailed as the killers of creativity, creating structure for your group brainstorming meeting will help everyone feel included. We even had feedback from participants that it was the “most engaging” video conference meeting they had ever been in.

4. Use Pairing Tools for your Project

As hackathon participants start to build solutions and prototypes for their projects, there is one important element of a hackathon that is important to maintain for a healthy hackathon team — collaboration. At Qumulo, we use remote pairing tools to collaboratively code and solve problems together.

Two remote collaborative coding tools to consider are wemux and LiveShare. Both of these tools allow users to pair and work together on the same code or terminal. This enables both participants in pairing styles, like Driver-Navigator, to easily follow along with the code or switch roles.

Each tool also offers the opportunity for multiple team members to go rogue and work in the same environment independently, on different files. Rogue pairing can speed up development for prototypes during hackathons when all team members know what they are interested in building. Be careful with the rogue pairing technique, however, as it is difficult to split up your commits meaningfully.

Some teams also found that using the remote control feature in Zoom was sufficient enough to make progress on their projects or get help on a specific problem without the setup needed for the pair programming tools.

5. Use Demos to Engage and Celebrate

The most exciting part of a hackathon, by far, are the demos. This is the time when everyone is invited, whether they participated or not, to witness big ideas put to the test in a small amount of time.

It is important that all participants, whether they finished or not, get up to share the progress they made. There is no such thing as a failed hackathon project! This is a time to celebrate all of the accomplishments of the participants, whether they found a unique solution, learned something, or met someone new, it is all valuable.

In order to keep the demos from dragging on for too long, each participant had a time limit of two minutes to demonstrate the following:

  • Problem or Topic: Describe the problem you wanted to solve or the topic you wanted to learn about.
  • Solution or Outcome: What progress did you make? What is your proposed solution?
  • What’s next? If you think the project has next steps, describe them here.

The end result was an exciting whirlwind of new product improvements, developer tool improvements, and new discoveries of passion for technology. And the best part? We were all together — remotely– celebrating the accomplishments of our peers and connecting with one another.

Would you like to learn more about Qumulo’s culture and our community? We are hiring and have several open job opportunities! Check out our careers page to learn more, and see how you might be able to take part in our next hackathon.