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How a Hackathon can create fantastic, surprising solutions

Blog by Ian Luck
February 14, 2018
Deadlines refine the mind. They remove variables like exotic materials and processes that take too long. The closer the deadline, the more likely you'll start thinking waaay outside the box.

I’m quoting Adam Savage, co-creator of Mythbusters and a personal hero.  And when Alessio Nobile, our Head of Tech mentioned that he wanted to run a series of “Hackathons” – sessions that are intense team collaborations in programming – I readily agreed.

So on Friday morning, kicking off our first Hackathon, Alessio started the day by challenging his development team to “create something wonderful by the end of the day”.

Fuelled by donuts, in the first hour, the team brainstormed six ideas, including a “What's New” widget, a machine learning idea and an exotic sounding project called “Spider API”. After a democratic process, they settled on what they coined the “Escalation Ender” and immediately got into the swing of coding, aiming to get to the first milestone in two hours.

I met up with Alessio as the first lunchtime deadline neared. “We call this project the ‘Escalation Ender’” he explained to me “as it’s one of these maintenance projects that is a big time-suck for us. We lose productivity on new programming if we are working on configurations. The team decided that we would all benefit from the added time it would give us if we can make much of the process client accessible”.

I could immediately see the impact. In CustomerGauge, we have a very flexible ability to send out “Firefighting” messages to our clients’ teams. An example might be: “Your customer has just registered a zero in a survey and made the following comment… “Please reach out on this telephone number…” – and CustomerGauge can report on the progress of these items. To whom, when and how these messages get sent depends on a rules base – sometimes simple, other times more complex. For instance, a rule could be:  “If Segment = VIP and score = 0 to 6 and Root Cause = Logistics send to" and so on. And there might be hundreds of rules for each client.

Our Customer Success team usually crafts the rules together with the tech department, which can take time, and they end up as something of a “black box” for our clients. It’s been identified as an improvement point for a while, and it is on our customer “Self Service” product track. But with this Hackathon development, CustomerGauge clients can not only see the rules in place but also edit and customize as needed.

Delivering Results

On top of the rules improvements, Alessio explained that he often has to do forensic searches for non-delivered firefighting messages. “These are frustrating as it’s often a client’s spam filter or other bounce that stops delivery – not our fault!”, he confided to me. So the other item they planned to deliver in the Hackathon was a “Delivery and Action Report” – to provide visibility of all escalation actions in one client-facing page.

I could see the immediate benefit to clients (and also on internal productivity). “Escalation Ender” was an appropriate name.

By the time lunch was served, all the backend programming was done – leaving the User Interface to be worked on. As the day went on, the whole team got involved – a real opportunity to collaborate on programming back-end tasks, API and User Interface code. As the 5 pm deadline rolled around, Alessio welcomed the rest of the office down to see the results and share a beer.

The event had been a big success. A significant advance in the project had been made – there was working code and a way of already customizing the escalation emails, with some work to be done on the Reporting.

“Not quite finished” beamed Manas Kanti Dey, number two to Alessio – “but with a few more days next week or so we will have it finished and in production, tested and ready for use”. And looking at the tired, but smiling faces of the Tech Team as they munched pizzas I could see that the packed day had not only been fun but productive.  

Alessio spoke to me later and was very satisfied with the project they picked and the way the team all worked together. He explained to me some of the learnings, which included not being too ambitious in tasks to choose, watching for making small incremental changes, and the motivating effect of seeing improvement during the day. He laughed: “Oh, and small tasks almost always take longer than you think!”

From our customer’s and staff point of view, there is a new feature (and a solution to some pain) that was implemented at speed. With more Hackathons to come, we await more exciting developments.

Find out more on this new feature “Escalation Ender” on our site soon.

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