9 Tips for Hosting a Successful, Collaborative Hackathon, from Quip
A company that is built around offering modern collaboration software needs to believe in the power of bringing people together.
Luckily, that's just what Quip is all about.
Their annual three-day hackathon Quiprupt is an example of what collaboration looks like not just as a product offering but also as a core tenet of company culture. We asked participants from Quiprupt 2021 to tell us about their experience coming together to ship cool stuff—and how Quip's culture sets them up to be able to find meaningful work while building better products.
Tips for planning committees on setting up the event to succeed
1, Build in intermixing from the start.
When Technical Program Manager Michael Lee volunteered to organize the hackathon, he knew he wanted to ensure that teams were of mixed compositions, with different people from around the company and not just staffed by people in the Engineering, Product, and Design (EPD) group.
"The hackathon really pushes for teams to work with other members outside of EPD," says Michael. "Everyone is welcome to work on projects they're interested in, so they get a chance to work with those they normally don't get to work with."
Event MC Meghna Purkayastha, a Growth Business Account Executive, was drawn to participate specifically because of the opportunity to connect her side of the business—sales—to the engineering teams. "Our business units have so many different ways in which we interact with our customers," she says. "Often EPD doesn't have insights into what customers are asking for or their common challenges, so it's so great to close the gap!"
2. Encourage creative ideas.
Project ideas for Quiprupt bubble up from people on the ground, explains Michael, and that's what lets people have ownership over their projects. "People are free to join and work on projects they're interested in. We hold pitch sessions and additional sessions to help teams recruit new members and answer questions about their project ideas," he says.
3. Brand it well!
Designer Kyle Tezak stepped outside of his normal day-to-day responsibilities to create an engaging theme and brand for Quiprupt 2021, and even though he was on the planning side and not on a hackathon team, he still got to plug into the collaborative spirit.
"The best part about collaborating on these projects is letting go and trusting your team," he says. "I think it's easy for designers to get possessive with projects and this is a fun, low-stakes way to experiment and pass things back and forth."
And beyond having fun, he also built something beautiful. "The work we've created gets people excited to participate," says Kyle.
His team landed on a "mid-century, retro science, research, and development theme"—not unlike the Dharma Initiative from Lost, added Michael—and produced graphic, web, and video content, including a fun promotional video for the hackathon.
Tips for engineering leaders on participating fully
4. Define project roles quickly.
When Quip Senior PM Melissa Chan was setting up her team for the hackathon, she was careful to pull from different parts of the business, in line with Michael's vision. "It's really important to get the perspective of our Sales and Go to Market (GTM) team," says Melissa, who worked with those members to "understand what customers were looking for but was currently missing in our product." She also pulled in Kevin Zhang, a friend from engineering, to serve as her tech lead, which "centralized a lot of technical decisions."
Once she had a team, Melissa quickly got them in sync on a project scope and responsibilities.
5. Construct your narrative around the customer.
Melissa's team ended up winning the Grand Prize at Quiprupt, and she credits their success to the "end-to-end" story they shared. "I knew who our customer was, what they wanted to do, and what features would help them achieve the goal," she says. "By having that narrative throughout the week, we could figure out how to descope parts of the project that were taking longer or make sure that we spent more time in areas that were critical."
"I think it's always important to keep the customer in mind and to be able to reflect on where we've fallen short of their expectations," she added.
6. Embrace remote collaboration.
Niccolò Zapponi, Senior Manager, Salesforce Anywhere Labs, who was a member of Melissa's winning team, says that they were able to work together so well because "everyone had their own remit."
"We had daily stand ups to discuss progress and priorities," he added, "and then got on with our work. Running something like a hackathon entirely remotely is definitely not easy, but we made it work and managed to keep everyone engaged throughout the week."
Tips for everyone on embracing collaboration
7. Recognize your unique strengths.
When Niccolò signed up for the team, he knew he wasn't going to be bringing in deep technical expertise. "I'm glad I could rely on the rest of the team [for that]," he says. He did know, though, that he could provide something super valuable: the customer perspective.
"My ability to understand customer needs and translate them into technology solutions is really where I shine and what I brought to the table for Quiprupt," says Niccolò.
Meghna agrees. "It truly takes a team! Each person regardless of role has a vision and idea that can help benefit a customer. All members are necessary."
8. You'll learn faster than you think.
Kyle was surprised by how quickly he was able to pick up new video editing skills as part of his branding work on the hackathon, and it's a lesson he thinks applies in general. "Learning a new skill often takes a lot less time than you'd expect. You're not going to become an expert overnight, but you can probably learn enough to accomplish a focused goal in a relatively short amount of time," he says.
9. Sign up to do more of it!
This year, Melissa participated in four different projects (!) during Quiprupt, and she plans on doing the same thing next year. "I think working across teams, solving new problems, and pitching it across the company make hackathons really fun," she says. "I think there's so many talented people with great ideas here at Quip."
While she'll go into next year confident, the capability of her coworkers is keeping her humble: "It's hard to say if we can defend the crown!"