Since our founding just over a decade ago, Catchpoint has been focused on innovation, and research and development have always been a critical part of that. Four years ago, we decided to start our own companywide hackathons to create regular opportunities for employees to perform R&D.
We wanted to find a new way instead of the standard agile process cycle of two-week sprints. We were concerned that people were getting burnt out by the hamster wheel nature of the everyday grind, and didn’t have the time to pause and step away from their day-to-day responsibilities to ask what we could be doing better, differently, or to try something new.
When our four co-founders worked together at DoubleClick/Google, we were the core R&D team. We worked closely together over two- to four-week periods exploring new ideas, seeing if they could be built, and determining if they had real potential for business use application. This process produced a high success ratio, which was a great motivator for the entire team, and gave us a burst of inspiration: if it worked with four dedicated people, why not implement it on a wider scale at Catchpoint?
What We Didn’t Want
We knew what we didn’t want Catchpoint Hackathons to be. We didn’t want to do a one-day event; as per our previous experience, it didn’t give people enough of a break to really innovate (especially in newly created teams) and we felt this kind of event was unlikely to help move the company forward or impact positively the employees. Nor did we want to do code competitions, feeling as if they can too easily become only about who can work the smartest and fastest as opposed to coming up with new ideas. Lastly, we did not want to play around with blue sky ideas, such as working out a system to tell us when the coffee might be ready.
So… What is a Catchpoint Hackathon Like?
At Catchpoint, we hold two Hackathons yearly, one in the winter and the other in the summer. We organize each around a set of themes tied to our mission. The hackathon is called reIMAGINE, which is the one word to best express the goal of the hackathon.
The reIMAGINE Hackathon always involves teams. Teams can be made up of two to five people, and we encourage them to span the different departments across the company and globe. Our Hackathon isn’t just for engineers and product managers; it’s for everyone who can (and has the capacity to) get involved. We don’t look just at engineering problems, but anything from a sales and marketing challenge, to a workflow process, to a new business plan or a specific campaign.
Teams are self-forming and choose topics that excite them around a few central themes.
From the start, we decided to make each Hackathon a sprint, lasting one week; we start on a Monday morning and go until Sunday night. Many of our teams work remotely across that time. We don’t have stipulations about when or where people work. Indeed, we’ve found that some of our most productive employees have great bursts of activity at 2 am.
Essentially, it means that Catchpoint employees get two full weeks of R&D time every year. That’s not to say we don’t do R&D at other times of the year; our agile process accounts for this activity. If a problem arises, or a feature implementation is unclear, we’ll set aside R&D time to do so. However, our reIMAGINE hackathons are exclusively devoted to research and development.
What Comes Out of Our Hackathons
When there is a big unknown, who wants to make a commitment to an undetermined amount of time and/or resources to see it through? As a result of the Hackathons, we can see what might need to be done and how long it might take.
Many of our new features have begun as ideas dreamed up during Hackathons. For example, Scotte once decided to run a team that investigated how to borrow from a key strength of MongoDB and build flexibility in the real user area into Orchestra, our proprietary NoSQL in-memory database. Once the team figured out how to do it, they also quickly demonstrated it was a strong business idea and it is now one of our core features.
Last Hackathon, the sales teams were especially active coming out of their yearly Sales Kickoff event, driving toward topics centered around the market and competition. From an engineering point of view, meanwhile, the Hackathons can be an opportunity to move the needle in terms of what they think could work. Engineers can offer a new point of view to the issues arising, perhaps tapping into things that people haven’t realized could work or had the chance to consider.
Quite often we’ve found that a product manager will suggest something that engineers might think is outlandish in terms of time and resources, but the Hackathon might come up with a solution that can be built in 1-2 sprints.
Products That Began During a Hackathon
Some of the new products that have been dreamed up during our Hackathons include:
- DEX Sonar – our employee experience solution allows companies to reduce downtime and help keep employees productive by enabling the capture of true real-time user experiences, and troubleshooting data to determine the root cause of bad experiences
- Outage Analyzer – relies on historical Real User Monitoring data to predict if your website is experiencing an outage in particular geographical areas
- Custom Visualizations – allows our customers to bring their own data visualizations to our portal, so if we don’t have it out the box, they can bring it in
- Custom Monitors – the ability to bring your own customized monitors to Catchpoint to measure the performance of any service or application we don’t support out of the box
Our Latest Hackathon
We started our latest Hackathon last Monday, and 20 teams worked in tandem on 20 different problems. These include:
- A new process for launching integrated marketing campaigns
- Improving the performance of the dashboards by exploring alternative data delivery
- Integrating data across various developer tools like Version1, GitHub and pull queries, and Jenkins – is there a way to make a developer’s life easier?
How Does it Happen?
Our team at Catchpoint is pretty highly distributed. We have our headquarters in New York City, a major office in Bangalore (not a consulting company, it is Catchpoint India), a sales team working out of Boston, a small office in the UK, and several employees working remotely across the country and the world. During a reIMAGINE Hackathon, teams can be formed across geographies as well as departments.
In the same way that marketing and engineering might work together to build something new, someone in New York might work with someone in Bangalore, or someone in Boston might work with someone in Phoenix.
There are a couple of roles, such as designers and product managers, that are allowed to work across multiple teams as they are in high demand. If team members are new to each other, it can take a couple of days for them to adjust and work as a team; by day three, they typically arrive at a realization of what the product is. Other teams, meanwhile, always work together and brilliantly meld; we usually know they’ll have a particularly high output ratio.
Gavin Lynch, Data Platform Engineer Team Lead, says the thing he likes most about the Hackathons is that it gives him the chance to, “Try and tackle something I haven’t done before or to learn something new. I also enjoy the opportunity to work very closely with other people. We may even be working on the same bits of code. This morning, for instance, we asked which method signatures of a specific shared class we could all agree on, which is important because if you’re going to be working on one side and me on the other, we need to make sure we meet in the middle.”
There are no limits to what can be explored. All we ask is that teams stop what they’re doing for the week and get ensure their topic matches the themes before they launch in. Everything is done using Microsoft Teams, a competitor to Slack. Drit runs the online process. For each team, there is a different working channel. For a week the team works on that channel and on the Monday after the Hackathon, each team shares what they’ve produced.
Teams used to present a live hour-long presentation and demo to the judges about research and findings; however, as the number of teams has grown, now we ask all teams instead to make a 10-12 minute video, describing who the team was, what the problem was, how they solved it, what still needs to be solved, and a quick demo of their work.
The four judges are comprised of Mehdi Daoudi, our CEO; Drit Suljoti, our CIO; Scotte Barkan, our CTO; and Matt Izzo, VP of Product. Our judges can’t participate in the reIMAGINE Hackathon, but they act as advisors to the teams that request their help and positively encourage teams to reach out for help. We also recommend that all our engineering managers and product managers reach out to the teams during the week to see if they need assistance, and they act as advisors to specific teams.
Following the video sharing, we pick a set of winners. Sometimes, we might ask for a live presentation, from which we pick the ultimate winner. Our judging criteria is based on the impact to business, innovation (or creativity), and how complete the final project is. As judging sessions have become longer and the bar has continued to rise, we are thinking of adding a fourth dimension on the difficulty of the idea.
How Catchpoint Does Hackathons Differently
We’ve encountered a lot of interest in how we do our Hackathons (one of our customers is coming to the New York City office in August to see how we manage it). At a recent conference of CEOs, it’s what everyone wanted to talk to us about. What sets our Hackathons apart? Most people doing them run them for 24 hours only. For us, the week-long process truly allows people to come off the hamster wheel and think outside the box.
As a start-up, it’s hard to have an R&D department; for those that do have one, they often work separately from the rest of the company. What really distinguishes the Catchpoint Hackathon is that it gives our employees the opportunity to be part of a true start-up for a week and create on equal terms with employees across the company. What comes out of that is always yet to be discovered.
Check back next week when we’ll be posting the results of this week’s Hackathon, and highlighting some of the most innovative research and findings.
–Mehdi Daoudi, CEO & Co-Founder
–Dritan Suljoti, CIO & Co-Founder
–Scotte Barkan, CTO & Co-Founder