The Benefits of Hackathons

Kathryn Koehler

Director, Productivity Engineering at Netflix



As an engineering manager, I heard comments from people about the lack of opportunities to innovate on the product and/or collaborate with people outside of their day to day teams.

Actions taken

I have had a lot of success bringing hackathons to companies as a way to spark innovation and have people work with folks they may not have known across the organization. Hackathons aren't limited to only technical teams. We include non-technical people and non-technical hacks as well to promote company-wide participation. Great ideas come from everywhere!

The logistics of the hackathon depends on the company. My current company is more family-oriented so we organized two days of hacking with no expectation of working around the clock. In my experience, events are from 24 hours to a full week in duration. The longer the hackathon the quicker it is to turn a hack into production. Work with leadership to determine what your objectives are and how much time they are willing to spend on the event. It's not simply an opportunity for teams to blow off steam and socialize. In my experience, I have seen as many as 85% of the hacks generated end up in the final product. For some projects, hackathons serve as a way to move functionality forward quickly.

There are certain topics that people prefer to others in a hackathon. Not surprisingly, people usually chose easy to hack projects. This is because there are certain things that simply take too much time to get going. To encourage more complex hacks, we schedule a big brown bag ahead of time to let folks know the possibilities. This information also includes how to get started hacking on preexisting projects and links to the on-boarding docs for the different groups.

We chose the theme of Hack to the Future for our most recent hackathon. This is a common theme, it turns out, so feel free to get creative. It was fun and we had a lot of swag associated with it. We will schedule two each year, one in the summer and another in the winter. The summer time is a great event to include the interns.

Lessons learned

Hackathons are great for collaboration and innovation. They allow people to work with others whom they've never worked with before. It is a safe space for people to form cross-discipline and cross-initiative teams. It gives them a chance to work on things they have never had a chance to work on before and opens up their eyes to the different possibilities across the company.

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Kathryn Koehler

Director, Productivity Engineering at Netflix

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