If I'd conducted a survey a couple of weeks ago, I bet few employees at Warby Parker would have self-identified as a "hacker." With around 300 employees, the company has its fair share of software engineers--but we also have product designers, recruiters, copywriters, customer-experience associates, and other roles not typically associated with hacking.
That all changed when we hosted our inaugural Warby Parker Hackathon last month. The results were mindblowing, and although the practice is pretty common in tech companies--Facebook, Bitly, Meetup, Yelp, Foursquare, and others are all veterans--I'm convinced that businesses of any kind could benefit by incorporating it into their routine.
But first, what is a hackathon?
The basic idea of a hackathon is to erase all routine obligations for the day so that employees can clear a mental space for creativity. A period of time is set aside--we did 12 hours, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.--and during this time, groups of employees come up with an innovation idea for the company, execute it, test it, and then present it to a panel of judges. Teams have no bureaucracy, no hierarchy, no layers of decision-making. That's what makes them so productive.
The benefits are enormous: employees collaborate across departments and see the status quo with fresh eyes. The cycle of development and feedback is crunched into a narrow time frame, which rules out obstructive hesitation. A hackathon is also a chance for employees to partake in the expertise of their colleagues. This is especially valuable at larger companies, where employees are often unaware of what their co-workers actually do.
At Warby Parker HQ, many team members reported that the hackathon was their favorite day ever at work. The tangible results were pretty awesome, too: One team designed a dashboard that updated in real time to keep employees plugged in to events and programs throughout the company. Another team created a feature that allowed customers to receive style advice on Warby Parker glasses over email--and add the best pair to their cart with one click.
Start-ups aren't the only companies that can benefit from hackathons. Last summer, the City of New York hosted a hackathon devoted to helping New Yorkers lead more eco-friendly lives. AT&T and American Airlines co-hosted a hackathon at this year's SXSW, and British Airways hosted a hackathon in the sky this summer.
If you're interested in convening your own hackathon, here are a few tips:
Make everyone welcome
Open the hackathon to anyone who wishes to join, from interns to senior employees. Each person will bring a unique skillset and perspective--as well as input on which areas of the company are most in need of innovation.
Let groups form organically
Don't assign groups. Encourage employees to form their own teams based around ideas.
Provide energy sources
The proper care and feeding of hackers is important. The tradition's native cuisine generally revolves around pizza and energy drinks, but we also brought in healthier options to keep team members going at a steady burn. Multiple sources of caffeine are also important.
Set a time limit on presentations
A time limit forces teams to hone their concept. (We gave each team two minutes.)
The word "hackathon" was born out of "marathon" for a reason. It's exhausting. Reward each team's effort by doling out prizes for innovation, originality, and other categories. (Gift certificates for a massage are always a good bet.)
The takeaway? Hackathons are an amazing way to engage the team, foster collaboration, and knock out great work.