Why hackathons make a difference at these Chicago companies

April 20, 2017

Technology moves fast — sometimes too fast. With many Chicago startups focused on iterating and improving their products, they often need some structured time to step away and think of other problems they can be solving. We talked to three Chicago companies about how their hackathons work and what has come out of them.

 

NowSecure is a mobile app security technology company that focuses on the needs of enterprises with mobile workforces. The company delivers mobile app security testing, incident response, mobile app vetting and compliance solutions. Answers from SVP of product and engineering Jeff Fairman.

How do your hackathons work?

Our hackathons bring together talented engineers, user experience designers and security researchers to spend time working on product features, open source tools and powerful improvements to our technology stack.

While we are headquartered in Chicago, we have team members spread throughout the United States, with some located as far away as Spain and Norway. We’ve flown our team to Berlin and gathered here in Chicago to work together.

Our goal for this gathering is to create a new product by combining ongoing basic research into device-based application sharing with some of our existing products.

Why have a hackathon?

Ultimately, we challenge our team to create something with demonstrable end results. Since we are a distributed team, hackathons are also a way to socialize, build trust and relationships, and create new products. There is no substitute for teammates getting dirty together in real-time.

We are atypical when it comes to hackathons. Hackathons are a practical problem-solving technique we use to quickly iterate on new ideas. As well, they create a unique opportunity for the team to share ideas and build on top of those ideas.

Hackathons in turn become a tool for invention — we try to mash up broad-based “researchy”-type technology along with typical application development to see what kind of product comes to life on the other side. With little oversight, the team will take challenges and break them down into chunks, identify APIs and engage in efficient, pair-based development where each team can maximize productivity. This process is a must for larger teams.

What are some awesome things that have come out of your hackathons?

Our company believes heavily in open source technology and supporting that community. While we develop internal tools that support our products, we have engineers and researchers behind well-known tools in the mobile security community like Radare, Frida, Santoku Linux, Android VTS and more. Hackathons allow our team to share innovations within those tools and potentially make new ones.

 

Pampered Chef provides home cooks with high-quality kitchen tools, often sold by independent consultants at cooking shows and parties. Its engineers build the tech platform those consultants use, helping them sell products and fulfill orders. Answers from CTO Andrew Treanor.

How do hackathons at Pampered Chef work?

For us, the hackathon is an opportunity to embrace that creative and even competitive side of our talented co-workers and give them dedicated time to create something magical that they may otherwise never have the opportunity to really investigate and bring to life.

Working on a hackathon project is not just about getting our creative ideas out. It’s about tangible, real-world professional development for our co-workers. They can experiment with new technologies that we haven’t touched yet in our day-to-day projects — like a voice-activated technology — and learn how it works, and how it could work for us.

Personally, I try to be involved as little as possible in the hackathon until we get to judging the entries on the last day. This activity only works well when it is completely co-worker-led and I don’t want to derail the creativity of my team when they are in that collaborative zone.

Why have a hackathon?

The beautiful thing about technology is that many technology projects can be done quickly. We can move from creative brainstorming to testable product so much faster than, for instance, a product development team. And that agile, actionable aspect of technology is one of the reasons I’ve found hackathons to be so successful at Pampered Chef.

Hackathons promote innovation and independent, critical thought at every level of an organization, no matter tenure or title. I have found throughout my career that the most successful companies I’ve worked at embrace the idea that everyone is here to innovate; that every coworker should know what the business is and what it needs. Hackathons at Pampered Chef put that value into action and give coworkers a chance to create something tangible and fully functional today that could have a substantial impact on our business tomorrow.

What are some awesome things that have come out of your hackathons?

Everything that comes out of our hackathons — whether we implement it across the company or not — is awesome. We had been in a creative rut for some time in our technology department and the hackathon really jump-started our innovation on every level. It also filled the top of the funnel with more projects we could work on and several have already been implemented very successfully.

Express Party Checkout [which brought the paper checkout process online] was a technology solution that came directly out of our first hackathon last fall and is rolling out nationally to our field leaders this spring. Express Party Checkout is a responsive web application that dramatically expedites the checkout process for our guests and consultants, and it’s proven to positively impact our future party bookings, average order values and average order sizes. That’s a remarkable impact and a huge testament to the creativity of our technology coworkers.

 

G2 Crowd is the provider of a reviewing platform for business software and services. That platform is host to more than 150,000 independent user reviews and is accessed by more than 750,000 buyers monthly. Answers from communications director Adam Beeson. 

How do hackathons at G2 Crowd work?

The team at G2 Crowd ended the 2016 fiscal year with a bang. We were thrilled to have eclipsed many of our challenging stretch goals, and, in accordance with our tradition, we rewarded many of our teams with a week working at a remote destination. This year we took a large group of the Crowd to the Dominican Republic for a week of fun in the sun and some special project hackathon work. These groups focused on a variety of cross-functional projects.

What are some awesome things that have come out of your hackathons?

A few of the recipients couldn’t make the trip, and they took on a "hometown project." The challenge was to create an executable program around G2 Gives, our charitable arm. A cross-functional group of developers, communicators and researchers came together and built a program to support World Water Day. This program donates $5 for a completed review to support efforts to bring clean water to people who do not have access through Charity Water. By the end of the week we launched www.g2crowd.com/water, and to date, we have raised enough to provide 310 days of clean water to someone who does not already have access.

Our friends at Sprout Social loved the concept and we set up a similar landing page and review campaign for them. In half the amount of time, Sprout Social's campaign has doubled what G2 Crowd’s initial push has accomplished and they are still going strong. As of today, four other companies have come forward asking to set up similar review campaigns and today we are turning professionals’ opinions into clean water for the world.

 

Images via featured companies

What the coolest thing to come out of your company hackathon? Let us know with a tip or a tweet @BuiltInChicago

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