Four Tips For Running A Global Hackathon

Every year, global cloud accounting company Xero runs a hackathon called Global Xplore. Hackathons aren’t new — you’ve no doubt heard about many of them over the years. But Xero did things a little differently this time and it has some wise words to share about what it takes to host a successful global hackathon and why it’s such an important part of the company’s culture.

Michelle Gleeson is the software development team lead at Xero Australia

As a global cloud accounting platform used by 862,000 subscribers, innovating and making product consistently better is a key part of Xero’s success. This is why our company runs an annual hackathon called Global Xplore. Here are four lessons we learned from our most recent event.

#1 Don’t Be Restricted By Geography

This obviously depends on how big your company or team is. If you are in multiple offices or locations, the natural tendency is to run different hackathons or creative sessions in different markets, and then consolidate the work. I understand that, as it’s logistically a lot easier. But from our experience, the extra management around holding a truly global hackathon is well worth the investment. We had 159 teams from seven offices around the world participating in ours at Xero last month.

It meant we had incredible diversity of thought, experience and insight. People got to work with their colleagues on the other side of the globe — brought together by a shared passion and ideas.

#2 Include Other Teams

This was a key one. It’s something some have experimented with, but most technology companies tend to keep hackathons within the software teams. We opened up the Xero hackathon last month to a wide range of teams, including customer experience, sales and more, in addition to our software teams.

We kicked things off with a speed-dating style pitching event, where non-tech people inspired the developers with their ideas and campaigned to get them on their team. As these people are more customer facing, they provided great insight into what our users want and how they’d like to use the product. We got to productionise a number of small tweaks and quick wins that often aren’t prioritised on product roadmaps. Devs loved knowing they have made something in a day to make the customer’s lives a little bit easier. Other ideas saw the implementation of product add-ons to make the internal sales and customer support processes easier and more efficient.

Having teams from around the company led to better creativity, a wide range of ideas and quite simply, more fun!

#3 Go big

A lot of planning goes into a hackathon, whether you’re a handful of people in a coworking space, or a globally distributed team all around the world. Anyone who has run one knows this.

We could have made the hackathon just one afternoon, or one evening, but instead we had it go across two days. This meant the ideas and projects that came out of it were more fully fledged, and much more feasible in terms of ideas that could actually go into production. It also gave people more time and mental headspace to step away from the day to day, and be able to dive deep into these fun, impactful ideas.

The resulting ideas were as diverse as the teams who created them. One team developed a highly sophisticated ping pong scoring system (with RFID player login, a UI showing current scores, buttons to record scoring, and more). Another prototyped an app that created a virtual representation of our office, letting you walk around desks, see who was there, talk to them, and more — an innovation to help our remote workers feel more connected. One group, with a focus on accessibility, developed a custom speech recognition language to communicate with computers using syllables that are easy for the computer to recognise with speed and accuracy — driving actions like menu shortcuts, navigation, editing text, etc. Imagine controlling your accounting software easily with your voice!

#4 Make it fun

A two-day hackathon can get very intense, and sometime frustrating when dealing with new tech in a timeboxed way. Break the tension to allow creativity and innovation. The office was full of decorations and we had a constant stream of lollies and healthy snacks. There were silly prizes for most diverse team, best team costume and most spectacular failure. We had break out activities like bake-offs, photo booths and shared breakfast, lunch and dinners, before the whole event ended in a celebratory award ceremony.

A bunch of the features you see in Xero today were born in hackathons from previous years. It’s such a fun, engaging and productive way to continue innovating your product or service, and with some small tweaks you can make your next hackathon even greater.

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