How to do a Virtual Hackaton in 2021
December 8, 2020
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by admin


On October 28-29, TechnologyAdvice hosted its first Hackathon. The event gave teams time to step back from their regular schedule and attack projects that had been pushed back or problems that needed to be addressed. The company has a retreat every year, but this fall’s retreat focused on projects that departments hadn’t had much time to work on during the pandemic and regular work hours. The Hackathon was entirely virtual. 

Implementing an entirely virtual retreat for your team, even if they aren’t all remote, could be the best way to set every team member up for success. One or two days of work over video conference and collaboration software allows any team to know exactly what is expected of them. A virtual hackathon can also be more focused: instead of worrying about conference rooms, food, and other tangential aspects of a meeting, keeping everything online can organize and simplify the event.

TechnologyAdvice found incredible success in their first virtual Hackathon. So can your team. 

What is a hackathon?

A traditional hackathon is an event hosted by development teams, intended to focus on a particular application, software, or program that might be having problems, needing updates, or growing. Teams typically present their project work and accomplishments at the end of the event, lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days. A hackathon is intended to be collaborative, so teams document their results in detail for the entire company’s benefit. 

Hackathons remind businesses of their interdependence and the ways each team is important to the entire organization. Hackathons allow any company, tech-focused or not, to step back from normal operations and address challenges they may not have time for ordinarily. 

Why was this hackathon necessary?

As the company pushed certain initiatives to the front of the schedule, other projects had fallen by the wayside—especially during COVID-19, when team priorities shifted depending on uncontrollable events. And that’s perfectly normal — TechnologyAdvice was aware of those areas that it didn’t always have time to address. The Hackathon allowed the company to bring those projects to the front of its attention for a couple of days.

Team leaders and management stressed that, too, often encouraging employees not to worry about other projects and to stay focused on their Hackathon goals.

Why did this hackathon work?

TechnologyAdvice briefly gathered via video conference on the first morning before splitting into twenty-five different teams, each of which had been assigned a team leader and specific tasks in the days leading up to the event. The Hackathon organizers had provided goodie bags with treats (swag bags, to use hackathon terminology) for team members earlier that week. 

TechnologyAdvice had a general two-day schedule for the entire company, but each team had also broken their time into more specific sessions. Many teams were segmented within their departments, but some were assigned to projects within another department: TechnologyAdvice placed team members who would be the best fit for each project, regardless of where they usually work. This encouraged inter-department collaboration that employees might not always experience during a typical work week.

Because the Hackathon was fully remote, effectively using communication and collaboration tools allowed each team to make great progress and discoveries. Meetings were held via Zoom, and teams utilized breakout rooms for small-group discussions. TechnologyAdvice heavily used Slack to stay in touch throughout the entire Hackathon. Google Drive allowed the team to easily share content from the Hackathon with each other and view results. 

The company didn’t just focus on tasks, though: TechnologyAdvice planned fun virtual activities for the entire team. The second day featured a Halloween costume contest and a virtual immersive entertainment session. Lastly, CEO Rob Bellenfant gave the entire team the third day off. That surprise vacation day was a show of appreciation for the team’s hard work and an example of the company culture TechnologyAdvice strives to cultivate.

The Hackathon allowed the team to recharge creatively by researching different topics and to recharge mentally by having a day off. 

Members of the human resources and administration team planned weeks in advance for the Hackathon. “The goal was to make sure that everyone had a part to play and knew what was expected of them,” administrative assistant Johanna Snearly said. And she and the other teammates who were instrumental in organizing the Hackathon ensured everyone on the team had clearly set goals for the two days. Each Hackathon team leader was given instructions for planning their sessions and knew in advance that they would be presenting before the whole company. 

The detailed preparatory work by the administrative team and team leaders made the Hackathon a success. The event wouldn’t have been so focused and results-driven had team leaders and management not laid out very clear expectations and schedules for their team. Administration and team leaders communicated with employees thoroughly through the company software, explaining exactly when to meet, where to post content, and how presentations would work (except one very mysterious virtual game show). 

Opportunities for growth

Matthew Weiner, manager of sales and client success, explained how the virtual Hackathon helped his team. “Our sales and client success teams move at such a fast pace that it’s often difficult to focus on objectives outside of our normal responsibilities,” he said about his teammates, who have packed schedules with little room for side projects.

“The Hackathon was a great opportunity for our teams to take a step back from the day-to-day, identify larger goals and opportunities for improvement, and come up with solutions to address these ideas.” The multiple sales and client success teams accomplished that as they researched concrete methods for better communicating with leads and receiving more feedback from customers. 

This year’s retreat gave team members unique opportunities. Mid-level managers led a team and presented their findings before the company. Company-wide presentations also contribute to TechnologyAdvice’s collaborative nature: the team believes that being transparent with everyone, not just your department, is the best way to cultivate a strong business environment. 

Team leaders explained exactly what their team’s goal had been, as it was laid about before them at the beginning of the Hackathon, and how they researched and developed new strategies. When departments work together and know each other’s needs, information silos disappear, and teams are better equipped to assist each other with upcoming projects.

The presentations also encouraged TechnologyAdvice team members: “Hearing what the other teams are working on gives me such confidence in the programs we sell to our clients because I know that at every level of TA we are all striving to do and be our best,” explained Michele Beasley, TechnologyAdvice’s director of client strategy and development. 

Advantage of virtual hackathons

Because the retreat was entirely virtual, every employee was on a completely level playing field. TechnologyAdvice has team members across the nation (east coast to west coast). Instead of some team members being in the office and others being remote during the Hackathon, every employee worked from home. The entirely virtual nature of the retreat made it successful.

Small groups divided into Zoom breakout rooms and quickly shared their data with each other. Members of TechnologyAdvice’s Content and Audience Development teams found that the small-group work on their project—revising and refining website profiles—helped them develop a wealth of insights. Most of the team was divided into pairs who analyzed a website and found pages of useful, concrete data. 

The marketing team (who reinvented a marketing strategy in two days) only had five people, but while working together remotely, they developed graphics and detailed explanations for a new approach to vendor marketing. Small group work over platforms such as Zoom, Slack, and Google allowed teams to be much more detailed and effective in their research. 

What really made the 2020 TechnologyAdvice Hackathon a success? The retreat was entirely virtual, it was thoroughly planned, and employees knew what was expected of them. Team meetings detailed how teammates should document their work, and leaders took time to meet with individuals and small groups to learn what they had discovered. The company effectively used its technology to collaborate with each other. 

Image Credit: artem podrez; pexels

Jenna Phipps

Jenna Phipps is a junior content coordinator for TechnologyAdvice, a business-to-business marketing company that connects technology buyers with the right products. She writes about information technology security, networking, and data storage. Jenna lives in Nashville, TN.

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