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Learnings from the Inaugural Hack Week at a Startup

April 12, 2022

In this article you will learn:

Written by: Praneet Mhatre, Head of Engineering at Formation

This last week at Formation turned out to be one of the most exciting and productive ones we’ve had in recent memory - our first ever Hack Week! The positive energy resonating from the week prompted me to share our collective excitement as well as some practical tips for others considering organizing one for their own team.

Hack weeks are an opportunity for product development teams to pause their standard feature roadmap work and spend time letting those creative juices flow. Everything from crazy experimental ideas to quick-hit cost saving projects to addressing that bit of tech debt that's been bothering you for a long time are fair game. When we draw a common thread across successful hack week projects, we see typically three factors - speed, innovation and impact.

Why Invest in a Hack Week?

Hack weeks are a significant investment. We’ve seen many large companies successfully run their variations of hack weeks, but are we sure they also make sense for earlier stage startups? In the right context, I certainly think so!

It's a great way to break the monotony of the standard feature delivery lifecycle. It can also lead to truly innovative ideas that often end up getting prioritized on the regular feature roadmap - I have personally taken hack week projects open source and eventually presented them at external conferences. And one of my favorite aspects about hack weeks is the collaboration opportunities they afford for teams that don't normally get to work together, to deepen relationships. This is especially critical for fully remote teams like ours.

How Do you Know the Time is Right for your Startup?

If you are a relatively earlier stage startup, it helps to consider a few factors to evaluate if you are ready to start your own hack week tradition.

  1. You have a culture of autonomy. At Formation, the engineering team adopted a feature team-based process last year. Individual engineers serve as feature leads for cross-functional teams in charge of delivering major product features. They get plenty of autonomy in terms of planning, delegation, meeting format and cadence. As a result, we have seen a marked increase in the sense of ownership our engineers have displayed.

  2. You have built the right foundation. Formation released its first fully self-serve Dynamic Offer Optimization platform in April of 2021. We also spent the last three quarters rolling out a Jira based process to make development transparent and predictable. The product development team committing to this level of quality and transparency has already built the trust and confidence in the executive leadership group to get behind initiatives like hack weeks.

  3. You have an engaged employee base. The success (or failure) of a hack week is highly dependent on employees in your development org being highly engaged, particularly with the company's product. It helps to have team members who are comfortable wearing many hats and have shown an appetite for stepping out of their comfort zone.

What were the Projects?

Our teams shipped an impressive number of projects this week. I’d love to highlight a handful based on the themes I identified earlier.

Speed. We had a small team exemplify this theme while taking home the runner-up prize. The team managed to build a working prototype of a demo store which our GoToMarket teams can start using with prospective customers today! They did it with just one primary full stack developer supported by a PM and some help from our principal architect.

Innovation. The grand prize for the week was claimed by a team that came up with a truly innovative idea and brought it to life with a cross functional group of folks including data scientists, back end-engineers and front-end experts. This project turned a common piece of feedback we have received from our customers into an MVP feature which is now almost guaranteed to be next on the official roadmap. Well done, team!

Impact. The judges’ choice award was taken home by a team that put together a powerful internal experimentation platform which makes data-driven product decisions possible for all stakeholders within Formation. While this project did not have a polished UI, the power of the work this team did was abundantly clear through their well thought-out presentation.

Other notable projects included our technical co-founder pulling off a massive refactor of a critical part of the code base, to data analysts and scientists collaborating to make the experience of using Formation’s product easier for our customers, to a front-end engineer working on maximizing component reuse. Another project that deserves a special mention, especially given Formation’s serverless architecture, was one put together by a full stack engineer which enables the intentional optimization of cost vs speed of AWS Lambda functions.

How did we set our Team up for Success?

We prioritized planning and putting sufficient structure in place well in advance to maximize our chances of success. For example, we created and socialized a project sign-up sheet way ahead of time. We also made sure to put together an FAQ document for those without prior hackathon experience. We used both the company all-hands and the engineering all-hands to build up excitement heading into the week.

A few days before our Hack Week, the entire company attended a pitch session where team members across functions pitched their ideas and recruited help for their respective projects. That way when the week finally arrived, all teams were ready to hit the ground running. Throughout the week, teams made dynamic adjustments to their ideas, pulling other folks in as needed etc.

The week ended with a 2 hour long demo session attended by the whole company. As teams made their way through their respective demos, all employees voted for their favorite projects. In addition to popular winners, we also handed out a judges' choice award. We then welcomed the weekend with an extended virtual happy hour!

Final Takeaways

If the participation rate, the team’s renewed energy, and the quality of projects demoed is anything to go by, our first ever Hack Week was a resounding success! As we suspected, investing in sufficient preparation ahead of time was the biggest key to success. As folks reached out to me throughout the week with questions about joining someone else’s project, changing scope or even scrapping their projects entirely, I made sure to be as accommodating as possible to encourage a mindset of speed and iteration.

Don’t forget to make it fun! Making these initiatives enjoyable is even more critical in the remote setting we are currently operating in. The number of team members who shared positive feedback around getting to work with and virtually hang out with someone they hadn't worked with before was almost valuable enough on its own to make the whole initiative worth the investment.

Finally, remember that the outcomes from hack week will continue impacting your engineering team and roadmap for months to come, the positive benefits don't stop once the winners are announced. I can’t wait to see how all of these projects continue to positively impact our product roadmap over the coming months.