What the Heck is a Hackathon?
What would be a great way to fire up employees, all toilers in a demanding, high tech environment, to move their focus up a notch or two above their daily tasks? Maybe a day at the Cinerama with an amazing buffet, or a trip through the outback on jeeps and kayaks? Or how about bunching us all together, programmers, product managers, software architects, quality engineers, tech writers, in one space filled with tables, chairs, and computers, computers and more computers! Let us spend a day and a half “hacking away” in small teams on some of the most innovative, creative ideas, that we ourselves proposed! The level of adrenaline flowing these 27 hours could raise the ceiling, as the hackers, out of our own excitement, arrive early in the morning to take up positions behind our laptops and workstations, and stay on well into the wee hours, to make sure we’re going to get a working version of our projects ready on time.
Judging begins precisely at one and half hours after noon the second day, and the beyond the bleeding edge innovations we’ve been cobbling together have to be alive and kicking to be considered ‘ready for prime time’ - to go before the judges. And what a panel! Siemens PLM Software CEO Chuck Grindstaff flew in, and nobody could say for sure if he really came to Israel to help win some challenging accounts, or that he just had to see (and judge) this Hackathon thing first hand! Other judges that day included Zvi Feuer, executive Vice President and other executives at Siemens Industry Software Israel, as well as Eliezer “Izzy” Tokman, CEO of Siemens Israel, and Dr. Sigal Berman, professor of Industrial Engineering at Ben Gurion University.
To walk it all back a bit… where did the idea to have a Hackathon at our company come from anyway? Ayala Arbely, who has been involved with the Innovation group since its inception, together with Eitan Carmi, realized that their team was on to something: that ‘yes we can’ feeling. They see their group energized daily as the team members themselves lead and develop new ideas. ‘How great it could be,’ they thought, ‘if we could “infect” the whole company with this same spirit!’ They started looking into group coding happenings called “Hackathons” recently hosted at a number of companies. Also sometimes called “Ship it Day” or “FedEx Day”, the Hackathon, which is ‘a code development marathon conducted in an exhilarating hacking atmosphere’, seemed like a good option.
After discussions and convincing at the CEO and HR levels, both Ayala and Eitan knew that preparing the groundwork and the employees’ understanding of what was going to take place, was essential. About three weeks before the event, they gathered us for a kick-off introduction and explained that fostering a culture of innovation can make the difference between an organization thriving or not even surviving. A workplace where “things happen” because people want to do them, and they’re enabled to do them. Where great ideas are naturally accepted and encouraged from the “crowd” no less than from the business development and product management levels.
Fast forward to a week before the event – all employees are invited to use a dedicated SharePoint area to post their proposals for projects, briefly elaborate on the functionality and benefits, and form teams with a maximum of seven members.
For a company of 160 employees, the number of ideas accepted for implementation is remarkable: 14, serving as another indicator of the spirit of invigoration in the air. The next step in preparing for the event is a true logistic triumph. The Hackathon would be launched at the beginning of the work week. During the afternoon of the last day of the previous week, trolleys are made available and each of us transports our computers, screens, keyboards and mice from our workareas to a large open space generally used for company meetings.
Specially rented long tables are placed, and the IT team will connect almost 100 computers to a complex system of server and routing resources also rented for the occasion.
The big day arrives – we’re here early, treated to a nutritious breakfast, and before we split off to our team areas, we review the guidelines:
- Projects must be prepared in just 1.5 working days and are eligible for judging if they –
- Are relevant to our technologies
- Have business potential for our company
- Each team gets seven minutes to demo their project before the judges (and the rest of us), and to give a very brief presentation to explain the innovativeness and value of their solution. We’re encouraged to present with an engaging, convincing approach, as if this was a marketing opportunity.
The room, though usually calm and focused, conveys an energizing atmosphere of entrepreneurship from every side.
And some times, team members just can’t suppress their excitement upon reaching a breakthrough. At one point, for a refreshing surprise, two trained masseurs roam the space offering a brief shoulder/upper arm massage to any hacker wishing to receive one. For many of us, the first day extends into the late hours of that night, and more than a few workers return early the next morning so there’s enough time to finish before the midday deadline. Then time’s up – and as we get up, rub our eyes and stretch, the organizers remind us that there’s an hour for lunch, and then judging begins promptly at 13:30. Upon returning, we see that IT and the maintenance staff have cleared out the long tables and set up rows of chairs for us, and the judges are taking seats at their table in the front. Each team comes up, one by one, and quickly connects one of their computers with IT’s help to the overhead projector. Some teams run their demo and display slides while explaining their solution’s innovative aspects. Others have their members act as users, engineers or managers facing some day-in-the-life workplace challenges, and then demonstrate the solution, for example:
- A gamification system that can help manufacturing designers get up to speed with a complex engineering application.
- A ribbon that moves hundreds of commands and options that resided until now in a complex of menus and toolbars into a streamlined, elegant user interface.
- An adaptation of Google Glass to deliver hands-free work instructions.
- Enhanced instruction through parallel windows, one running a how-to video, while the other synchronously scrolls the related help documentation as the movie progresses, with a drop down menu to switch languages.
Overall, in a little more than two hours, 14 teams demonstrate live, innovative solutions to help overcome obstacles impeding efficiency, productivity and speed in a large variety of high-tech and manufacturing contexts.
After the Hackathon we held some discussions to assess the take-aways from this special event and understand what could come next. Those who participated in these conversations included Adam Magen, Senior Director of Special Projects, Ofer Ohayon, Application Team Leader, Koby Levy, Business Consultant, as well as the organizers Eitan and Ayala. These dialogues brought out the following points. Many big companies contend with the bureaucratic “long tail” and the need to sense the clients’ requirements more closely, while their smaller competitors spar and parry more nimbly in the race to reach the customer. So as a large organization, we must reinvent ourselves to meet the challenges by embedding innovation in the culture of our daily workplace. It’s not enough to just have an ‘Innovation department’ separate from our day-to-day focus. We need to be disruptive of ourselves, willing to venture into different fields and technologies, as the Google Glass project exemplified. Another out-of-the-box suggestion – send groups of employees to customer sites and let them experience first-hand how our users work, and what they need to work even better.
Innovation also showed a human side, when on Day 1 of the Hackathon, one of the teams invited a brand-new employee to join them as she arrived for her first day at work. And the tools of innovation, such as “ideation” and systematic inventive thinking (SIT) are completely rooted in the initiative of individuals and crowd-sourced ideas that can start from the “bottom” of the organization. Everyone imagining a “picture of the future” of where the world is going in the next few years and what we should do to get there.
The Hackathon experience reminds us that our people are our most important asset, and they need an atmosphere of belonging, bonding and high motivation to master their areas of activity. We have to let people reveal their ‘innovator gene’, stand up for their big ideas and assert leadership, allow them to surmount hurdles of scheduling and routine and achieve amazing results quickly. Let’s change the perception of team members from feeling they’re here each day to fix their quota of bugs – to knowing that they really have the possibility to create focused business opportunities. There are already three practical take-aways from the Hackathon:
- The gamification project was featured at our booth at the Global Sales Training (GST) event in Las Vegas this year.
- The ribbon will be implemented in the next major Process Simulate version.
- Inspired by the event, a developer went on to code an automatic Data Migration tool that will save Teamcenter-Process Simulate users significant time and effort.
Employees can be encouraged to continuously learn, and from a number of sources – academy, industry sites, the experience of other companies, and use the knowledge to improve our own capabilities. This characterizes the highly valued disruptive, lean culture that continuously seeks to challenge itself and reinvent its ideas and products.
The excitement of the Hackathon put a renewed sparkle in the eyes of the participants, and revealed that what had seemed impossible or at least impractical turned out to be do-able. The results topped everyone’s expectations and impressed management, organizational leaders and not least, the workers themselves. A similar event is now taking place at the Siemens Industry Software offices in India and additional ones are in planning for other sites as well. We hope it’s the beginning of a tradition here.