Hackathons are woven into today’s software culture. Many of us in the industry, and on Qumulo’s technical staff, can tell tales of hackathons that inspired us and moved us forward, as well as a few that left us a little tired and disappointed. What makes the difference between the success stories and disappointments? The answer is the culture created by the people participating.

Culture describes how a group of people does things and what they think is important. The way hackathons are conducted reveals how an organization sets goals, the engineering practices that its people use, and the ways team members collaborate, communicate, and make decisions.

Qumulo’s most recent hackathon in April was a two-day distillation of our company’s culture and shared values. For a quick recap, our company values are provided below:

  • We are data-driven and experimental
  • We do the hard, right thing
  • We build a team of people we’re proud to know
  • We share by default
  • Customers are our magnetic field

Data-Driven and Experimental

A hackathon at Qumulo is the perfect opportunity to experiment with an idea and have a real, tangible way to see what impact it makes in a short period of time. In the engineering team at Qumulo, we follow the Agile philosophy. This way of working, in a dynamic and fast-paced environment, helps teams identify how best to adapt as they build their hackathon projects.

Aki Namioka is an Agile Coach here at Qumulo and has been an Agile practitioner since 2001. Aki is currently the President of Agile Open Northwest, the largest Agile OpenSpace conference in the country, and brings many great ideas to Qumulo when it comes to making incremental changes for better products.

When asked, “How does Qumulo’s Agile methodology and culture translate to a Qumulo Hackathon?” Aki responded, “Agile teams are expected to continuously improve over time, and Qumulo Hackathons give Engineering the space to explore improvements for themselves, the organization, or the product.”

A hackathon is another way to have dedicated time to experiment in a time-boxed way to see what educated risks will make our products and processes better. Our most recent hackathon winners were Junjie Liang and Chris Araman, who worked on a project to improve the upgrade experience for our customers. Junjie said, “The hackathon was a good time to get a good proof-of-concept to show off the idea.” When asked how they were able to make the improvements to existing processes so quickly, Junjie said, “The great idea of small, iterative improvements is that you don’t have to get all of the things done to make progress.” Instead of seeing hackathons as just a bi-yearly event, the creativity and experimentation generated from them evolves into our everyday way of working.

We do the hard, right thing

In a software context, “doing the hard, hard thing” means taking action to solve problems instead of just talking about it. It’s often easy to criticize but hard to find a viable solution. Hackathons promote “doing the hard right thing” by allowing Qumulons time to explore hard problems and take action to solve them, even if they think they might fail.

Part of “doing the hard, right thing” in software is valuing and applying effective software engineering practices. Each developer at Qumulo is committed to building high quality software that will make both our internal team members and our customers happy. Sometimes this means making our development tools better. Several projects at the recent Qumulo hackathon focused on improving the day-to-day life for developers at Qumulo.

When asked how the April hackathon compared to past hackathons she has participated in, Aki said, “In other organizations, there were strong incentives to adopt projects that would push the boundaries of the product line. However, here at Qumulo, many of the hackathon projects focused on internally facing improvements. I think it is wonderful that Engineering didn’t feel the pressure at this event to have to work on product-related projects.”

Pat Kosakanchit, a Qumulo intern this summer, joined a team of Qumulons to improve visualizations for performance analysis. She said the hackathon helped her learn about Qumulo’s culture most of all. “It helped me see what the pain points of other people are, even though I’m new to Qumulo. I know what problems people are interested in solving, and being able to see that, being part of the community, is going to be one of the key experiences of my internship.”

We build a team of people we’re proud to know

The key to the success of Qumulo’s hackathons is the culture created by the people participating. At Qumulo, we hire engineers with intention, integrity, and passion, and it’s important that all voices are included and heard. We work hard to make sure our hackathons empower each person on the team, and provide an opportunity for individuals to grow and learn new things.

Also, hackathons set clear expectations for participants to create a healthy and inclusive hackathon environment. Participants are not expected to have actually fully solved a problem with production quality code by the end of the hackathon. The point is to have made some incremental progress and generate new ideas. There is an emphasis on not putting unhealthy pressure on participants to stay up all night. The hackathon environment is positive, fun, and learning-focused. This allows us to build up our employees and create time to invest in each other and our passions.

Share by default

Sharing and collaborating are two of the most important parts of Qumulo hackathons, which generate innovative solutions that no one person could have created alone. Given today’s remote workforce, it’s more important than ever to provide an intentional time and space to meet new people and share new ideas.

One way the April hackathon fostered sharing was by conducting twice-daily project updates via Slack. Everyone participating in the hackathon shared their progress and if they were stuck on anything. If a team was stuck, they were able to get new ideas and perspectives on how they might be able to solve their problem. The April hackathon encouraged this kind of collaboration from the very first mention of the event.

To kick off the hackathon, everyone was included and encouraged to collaborate on a shared idea brainstorm document. We wanted to create an open and encouraging environment for new ideas. Individuals shared, collaborated, explored, and fed off each other to generate new approaches. These new ideas came to life when shared with the entire group at the final demos.

Customers are our magnetic field

At the April hackathon demos, every project team led with the “why” and not the “how.” In the idea generation process, the emphasis was not on new technology or what would be made, the question that was asked was “what problem will you solve and who is it for?”. The most important part of any hackathon project is defining the problem you are solving, focusing on the people you will help with your solution, and who the solution will ultimately benefit.

Nothing demonstrates our passion for our customers more than the hackathon demos. Each team described the problem, who it was for, and then showed how they solved it. When I asked Pat what her favorite part of the hackathon was, she said “the end of the hackathon, where we demo our products. I think it’s so cool that we come up with solutions that make things easier for people within that short period of time.” Chris Araman said, “Seeing the feedback come in as the demo was happening, and seeing people clearly excited was really rewarding.”

Thanks to the great employees here at Qumulo, our recent Qumulo hackathon was a huge success. Qumulons chased their passions, generated new and innovative ideas, and connected with each other in a collaborative environment. The April hackathon was a lot of fun and an embodiment of the great things that come from our values driven organization.