How to win a hackathon

4 Dec 2017 by Scott Middleton

Building a company culture that wins hackathons

GovHack 2017 medalians

A few months ago, Terem won a national prize at Govhack 2017.

With over 2,300 participants and 379 projects, Govhack is Australia’s largest hackathon event. Govhack is divided up into a few domain specific challenges.

The Terem team took first place in the IP Australia challenge, “What happened to my IP rights application?”. Over 46 hours, the team designed and built the winning app called ‘Patent Pending’ that allows users to check the status of pending patents and trademarks. 

 Reflecting on this win allowed me to see how we’ve actively been building a company culture that is ideal for competitive collaboration. Here’s how:

Team Composition and Teamwork

Hackathons are often only associated with programmers and developers, but it takes a multidisciplinary team to be competitive. Our team was entirely self-organised and self-driven – a mix of engineers, user experience (UX) designers and product managers. At Terem, we place a strong focus on developing long term relationships, not only with our clients, but also internally, amongst our team. We came to Govhack with well established interpersonal relationships, as well as a solid appreciation of each other’s working styles and strengths. .

“Strong opinions loosely held,” is an attitude we strive for at Terem. The idea is that open and honest communication allows for robust debate, and ultimately, better solutions. It’s a philosophy that has proved useful in our day-to-day project work. It’s also invaluable in the early hours of the morning, with the hackathon deadline looming and tensions running high.

Leadership and Ownership

Fostering leadership skills, amongst both junior and experienced staff, is vital to both long term development and retention. Alberto, one of our engineers, was first to suggest that we participate in Govhack 2017. He ended up leading the team. As part of our solution, we had to provide a working prototype with intuitive user interface, publish our entire codebase, and create an engaging pitch video to promote our idea. Alberto divided the tasks, and different team-members took ownership of various aspects of the final deliverable.

Uncertainty and Change

The nature of our work at Terem is constant change – we’re engaged by clients to deliver an outcome and we contend with strict time limitations, shifting scopes and continuously manage stakeholders’ expectations.

A hackathon is the perfect setting for our team to showcase these skills –  a hackathon being the the most condensed form of a new product development cycle. It requires rapid ideation, development and prototyping. Circumstances change quickly in a 46-hour period, and how teams react, defines whether or not they succeed.

We knew our Govhack design would need to provide a clear, intuitive user experience for IP Australia clients. We were also aware that in developing our solution, there would be unexpected complexities, slowing the process and blocking other team members. Since the User Interface would likely go through a number of iterations, we started by building necessary back-end components in parallel to the UX design process. We did our best to avoid idle resources by having team members operate under assumptions, making adjustments where and when necessary. We were therefore able to descope unrealistic ideas, and create a functional, user-focused product by the end of the competition.

A Hacker Culture

Once a quarter, Terem runs an internal hackday for all staff. The event is not competition, but it requires everyone to produce something tangible within a 24 hour period. Teams use this opportunity to test and brainstorm new ideas,  develop prototypes in new software languages, or develop functional, if rudimentary, products and designs. It’s typically a lot of fun. Most of all, it encourages us to challenge ourselves regularly. To try new things. To learn new things. And that is the right kind of attitude for any hackathon.

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