As our one year anniversary of being a completely remote team was nearly upon us, and Rustici leadership was coordinating our “Quell” event, which normally consists of a significant amount of face-to-face time, participating in fun activities and connecting as people, we found ourselves still at a point in time where we could not safely come together. We spend a lot of time working on staying connected virtually (our office manager wrote all about it here). What can we do to get people collaborating in teams when we’re all physically apart? When Tammy presented the idea of a remote Rustici Hackathon (our first, in-person or otherwise), I jumped at a chance to help organize it. Over the last 15 years I’ve had the extraordinary fortune to be involved with a number of organization’s in-person Hack Weeks and Code Jams, and to see the potential for that same culture to form at the company I now call home couldn’t have been more welcome!
“The Game Has Changed”
Internally, the name for the Hackathon was chosen: “Project Daft Hack: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”. Within a week, Daft Punk ended their 28-year career. An auspicious start.
For this 48-hour event, we formed several teams of 6 people, making sure there was a good mix of people across departments and a chance for the new employees to get to work closely with the long-term members, and laid out a simple mantra: make us do what we do, better. That could be an integration with some external product, a plugin to something we already have, an internal tool or helper to better understand our own business, or even something that makes us work better with each other. Teams were given a week head start of the development event to plan out ideas and build a tech spec, which ended up being a fantastic communication moment. Team ideas changed and morphed across multiple preparatory discussions with their team and the coordinators, which really showed in the project implementations.
Two dominant trends appeared with project ideas. First, multiple teams latched onto personal pain points around their jobs that there isn’t usually space to address. Some team members maintain personal backlogs of projects (Rustici’s engineering book club recently read Shape Up, where having a backlog you maintain for yourself and advocate when appropriate is a minor theme), while newer Rusticians had their own challenges that ended up being powerful guiding lights for project choices, and both voices came through strongly during this process. Second, while explaining the premise of a Hackathon to the teams, we made a comment that the output from this doesn’t need to be a software project explicitly. If software helps you hit your project’s goals, that’s completely fine, but execution of your idea in whatever form is successful is what the judging will be on. Our intention when stating this was to make sure that the various teams didn’t feel like engineering team members had to lead the project. It turned out to be uniquely driving, with multiple teams picking projects that software was at most an ancillary component of. The leadership that developed within several teams and the presentations they put together emphasized this.
“Rollin’ & Scratchin'”
Building an equivalent to the in-person atmosphere of the Hackathon is tricky. Some atmosphere ideas were a little too on the nose: our office manager found candles that smell like Mountain Dew or pizza. While we kept a constantly open set of online meeting rooms open so teams could jump in and out to hang out, plan and get advice, the collaboration unsung hero during the Hackathon event was not a whiteboarding tool, a local to remote proxy for showing off your dev work or a shareable code editor. Instead, it was a very recently revived turntable.fm, a shared music platform for synchronizing play and offering everyone a chance to play their own favorite music, after an 8-year hiatus. Long-term Rusticians had fond memories of this platform, and it partially filled a real gap in creating the atmosphere that our Hackathon was missing with everyone being in a single shared space. DJ points became a competition within the competition, and the DJ room became a welcome break for everyone to share their music interests with their coworkers.
Right after the close of the 48-hour period, each team got a chance to do a pitch for their project. We saw new standards and technologies within our software (QTI and cmi5 living together in harmony!), better visibility into the costs of our own operations over time, a tool to improve the way we help customers envision what sort of cost savings we can bring to their organizations, and even a self-service customer portal.
But after an intense judging process with extremely close scoring (0.2 points between the top two teams out of 45 total points available in presentation, tech spec, marketability, completeness and “Cool Factor”!), a big congratulations goes to Team Rustici Cross Domination and their Rustici Accelerator!
We’ve expanded rapidly this last 12 months, and one team’s project focused on gaps in our onboarding process. By establishing a consolidated onboarding portal using the Instilled by PeopleFluent platform, they assembled a template for capturing much of the onboarding materials currently done live into a focused and bite-sized experience. The work we do here every day is sometimes complicated and built on obscure standards, and much of the reference material available is hard for someone new to eLearning to contextualize. This portal provides a mechanism for capturing better training of this type for our new teammates, and providing the option to re-watch and consume some of these challenging topics at the pace the new team members are equipped to retain it at.
We’re still learning how to make working from home work. Remote collaborative events will always come with their challenges, but the passion and engagement shown as part of our Hackathon gives me great hope for the eventual future of an in-person version of the event. But maybe without the Mountain Dew and pizza candles.