MessageMedia’s First Hackathon

At the end of another busy week in MessageMedia’s Melbourne office, 45 staff downed tools and came together to turn nine ideas into reality. MessageMedia’s inaugural Hackathon kicked off on Thursday afternoon, with teams working afternoon and evening, through the next day to hack together the teams chosen idea. A pitch session followed, with each team presenting their hack in a five minute pitch to the judges. Wrapping up the night was an awards ceremony, a few glasses of celebratory champagne and leftover pizza from the night before.

As with any investment, our Hackathon needed to provide value. To do this, the organising committee began by setting measurable objectives – what we hoped to be achieved:

  1. At least 50% business participation
  2. Collaboration and interaction between staff from all departments of the business
  3. At least two of the ideas suitable for further development

With objectives and a date set, the organising committee decided that outside help would be invaluable in getting this first event off the ground. We chose Myles Tehan of Hack Days Australia to provide hands on guidance in the lead up to and during the event.

In the weeks prior, everyone across the business was encouraged to submit ideas, centred around the theme of ‘working smarter’. No limitations were placed on the application of the ideas, it could be a new internal tool to make day to day life easier, a new feature that could be taken to market or something a little more experimental. The organising committee were overwhelmed to see 100 ideas submitted over the course of a 2 week period. At the same time 45 staff registered to participate, with strong representation from all departments of the business – dispelling fears the event would only be of interest to those in tech. Objective 1 complete!

With such a large number of ideas, the organising committee set about grooming the list of ideas into a shortlist which would then be voted on. Similar ideas were consolidated and the remaining ideas were turned into JIRA tasks, allowing us to create a Kanban style board of hackathon ideas. This gave everyone participating a familiar way to view ideas and using the voting feature, an easy way for the organising committee to solicit votes.

Upon conclusion of the voting, teams were formed around the top 9 ideas, with the owner of the idea being the team captain. Teams were organised to not only include members from different departments, but also to group people around an idea where their strengths and interests lie. Objective 2 complete!

Ignoring the ‘accidental’ leak on Friday afternoon, the finalised teams and ideas were announced on the Monday morning prior to the event. Naturally, the message was delivered via SMS.

Customised t-shirts – a staple of any Hackathon – were neatly stacked up outside the meeting area prior to kick off. Excited hackers grabbed a t-shirt and gathered for the kick off presentations where final housekeeping matters were taken care of. A slightly muted (some  staff were still manning the phones) air horn kicked off the hacking and teams set of to their designated areas around the office – in offices, stand up areas and around workstations. My team was lucky enough to be given the main boardroom, which has the largest whiteboards and TVs in the office, but we did feel a little isolated from the other teams at times. Throughout the afternoon teams whiteboarded what they wanted to build and what they would need to do to make it happen.

The first four hours flew by, marked by the announcement of pizza and beers in the kitchen for dinner and Myles held a ‘how to pitch’ session to give each team some pointers on what they should focus on when pitching their idea to the judges. Teams worked late into the night, huddled around laptops and whiteboards, snacking on a delicious mixture of cold pizza, beer, lollies and energy drinks. One team managed to sell their idea to an external client before the prototype was complete – audacious!

Motivated by the prospect of winning the Social Media Addict award, a steady steam of posts appeared on LinkedInFacebook and Twitter under the hashtag #mmghack.

When it was too early for a beer, and too late for a coffee, I decided it was time to go home and get a few hours sleep.

Dedicated members of the organising committee were back in the office early the next morning preparing breakfast platters and coffee to kick start everyone’s day. As people trickled into the office, they were met by a treasure hunt style game, setup by one of the teams to help promote their idea – guerrilla marketing at work. As lunch rolled around teams realised – that with 3 hours to go – they needed to get their pitch nailed down. The final hours focused on practising pitches over and over again in front of the rovers, fine tuning slide decks, and making sacrifices to the ‘live-demo’ gods.

The judging panel was made up of MessageMedia’s founder, the chairman of the board and our head of people and culture. Teams were given 5 minutes each to pitch their idea to the judges, and show off their demo or prototype, followed by up to 3 minutes of questions from the judges.

Some teams exposed the judges to a wide range of acting skills, presenting the problem they were solving and their solution with role playing. Other teams impressed the judges with research and data to back up their value of their idea and many teams put it all on the line and attempted the live demo. In many cases the live demos included audience participation, with audience members receiving messages during the pitch. The winning team managed to include role playing, market research and a flawless live demo, including everyone in the audience. To top it off, they closed their pitch with “oh yeah, and we’ve already sold it to a customer”. Fortunately, they were the last team to pitch, an impossible act to follow!

Two prizes were awarded. The overall winner, as voted by the judges and the peoples choice award as voted by members of the audience after the pitch session – again, naturally via SMS. A prize was also given out to the best social media post, as voted by the organising committee.

It was amazing to see such a wide range of ideas brought to life over such a short period of time. The first Hackathon went better than anyone could have hoped for, and it was pleasing to see many people stepping out of their comfort zone, especially during the pitch session. I loved seeing my colleagues stand up in front of a packed room and deliver engaging pitches with the support of their team – many of whom I’ve never seen speak in front of an audience before. A testament to the atmosphere in surrounding the event, our culture and perhaps sleep deprivation.

The feedback by our founder and the chairman of the board was equally as encouraging. After the winning team was crowned and all the prizes were handed out, a commitment was made to provide the resources required to bring many of the ideas to production. Objective 3 smashed out of the park!

The organising team is now focused on working out what’s required to take the ideas to production, as well as preparing for our next Hackathon!

In closing, it should be acknowledged how much effort and hard work went into preparing for this event. The organising committee took a great deal of time out of their work days, nights and weekends to prepare over a 6 week period. The results and value delivered was much greater than the sum of the inputs, and it’s inspiring to see what a small group of passionate and committed people within an organisation can achieve!

 


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