QuantumHack: Maintaining Innovation At A Distance With Our First Remote Hackathon

Lorena Balan, Software Engineer; Jo Stichbury, Technical Editor; Rory Walsh, Head of Engineering, QuantumBlack

How do you maintain a culture of experimentation when nobody can be in the same room? We often equate creativity with the image of group brainstorms or colleagues collaborating and bouncing ideas off one another. As we all know too well this is temporarily impossible and for teams that rely on constant, collaborative innovation, this has proven to be a challenge.

At QuantumBlack we benefit from being part of a leading global organisation, while retaining the autonomy to thrive in a fast-paced tech culture commonly found in smaller companies. QuantumBlack Labs is a fine example — this team of engineers, designers and product managers form our learning engine is responsible for building the tools supercharging QuantumBlack and McKinsey projects.

But Labs operates less as a department in a big firm and more a tech startup. Our team has the independence to innovate in areas we think would benefit most, setting our own product roadmaps while frequently bouncing ideas off each other. In the few short years since our launch, Labs has been responsible for developing a string of successful toolkits and open source products that continue to attract fantastic community input. Our products are not mandatory across the business and we design with a ‘choose to use’ mindset, so innovation and continuous tinkering is central to what we do — our tools need to be useful, easy to deploy and better than what’s already available in order to compel practitioners to use them.

The QuantumBlack Labs team has adapted to remote working well, but for a group that previously thrived on the creativity that comes so naturally when exchanging ideas and solutions face-to-face, the adjustment has not been easy.

With this in mind, earlier this year we eagerly organised our first internal hackathon, QuantumHack, under the theme of Cross-Product Collaboration. The two-day event was devised to tear down some of the perceived barriers between code bases and make everyone comfortable with the products they do not necessarily work on day-to-day. More than anything else, we wanted to bring QuantumBlack Labs together, nurture our sense of community and provide an opportunity to engage in what this team was launched to do — collaborate relentlessly to problem solve and innovate.

We appreciate that many teams around the world are exploring ways to reclaim the serendipitous creativity and sense of community that remote working seems to have chipped away at. This article explores our approach to a remote hackathon, areas that worked well and lessons for the future — we hope it provides useful learnings for those considering similar exercises.

QuantumHack saw the traditional sub-team format moved to Zoom

Under normal hackathons, much of the unbridled creativity comes from the fairly loose structure — you gather a team together, implement some outline goals and largely leave them to gel and create.

A remote hackathon poses interesting challenges and requires slightly more structure. While it was not possible to gather everyone together for a breakfast coffee and a croissant, we did begin the day with a morning check-in. This involved an energising icebreaker exercise, as we were mindful that logging in from home first thing in the morning may leave some attendees less awake than an in-person event.

This was followed by a full uninterrupted day of hacking from 10am to 6pm, with teams split out into separate Zoom rooms together. We were keen to retain the ‘light touch’ feel of normal hackathons but did implement some fresh structural additions to help keep the process efficient. For example, we were conscious that remote work often generates a huge amount of asynchronous information from various emails, Slack messages and other notifications. This often makes it difficult to simply stay on top of latest news and developments, let alone engage with one sub-team in an event comprised of many.

With this in mind we established a dedicated page for the hackathon which held all relevant, up-to-date information, relieving everyone involved of the pressure of checking multiple different channels throughout the day. We also shared an open Zoom link at lunchtime, inviting participants to drop in, ask questions and receive immediate feedback.

An afternoon check-in was followed by evening entertainment — QuantumBlack’s own comedy society organised a virtual standup show, providing an occasion for participants to come together outside of their hackathon team. However, we acknowledged that after an entire day staring into screens, simply switching from one window to another may not be enticing for many. We therefore implemented a one hour break in the schedule to offer colleagues a well-deserved screen break or — for the keener hackers — time to continue working on their ideas while still in the zone.

Across the two days our teams were responsible for developing a range of different solutions, including Kedro with Great Expectations and Studio, IDE support for Kedro syntax, stream processing using Kedro and PerformanceAI and an end-to-end demo of QuantumBlack Labs tools.

A range of prizes were also awarded, including ‘Best Moonshot’, ‘Most Likely To Be Used In Production Tomorrow’, ‘Best Connected User Experience and People’s Choice’. We had decided on these various award categories during the event planning stage, partly with a view to gently guide the direction of solutions — we wanted to generate ideas that could solve immediate problems, but we also wanted to offer individuals the chance to pursue unshackled innovation, given them the option to pursue ideas that may have been germinating for some time.

We also wanted to make the process rewarding, engaging and something participants would want to be involved with again. Winners were chosen by the wider participant group rather than a jury and received fun prizes such as group experiences, which would further encourage collaboration beyond the code editor screen.

We were delighted with the remote hackathon’s results — the level of engagement and energy among the participants was impressively high and this is reflected by the scale of innovation on display after just two days of work. There are now broader conversations underway across QuantumBlack Labs around how hackathons could integrate permanently into our existing ways of working and two product teams are already planning their own.

That being said, this was our first attempt and so naturally there are lessons to be taken onboard for future remote events. One clear outtake was that ahead of future hackathons we should better communicate that team members will be afforded support in order to break off from their weekly backlog. Sign up to the hackathon was fairly strong from the very start, however we did have some initial queries from colleagues highlighting that they had upcoming internal deadlines. For future hackathons we would improve our prior communication and explain to invitees that support would be available to help them attend without impacting their timelines.

An additional learning involved the opposite end of the process. We were highly impressed with the outputs of the hackathon — however, in hindsight we should have taken steps to maintain the initial momentum and follow up on the ideas immediately after the event. Our focus had been almost entirely on planning and running the event, and we had not expected to generate the variety of ideas we ended up with. This meant that after the hackathon we were initially quite slow to act — in future we would have a framework in place to follow up, press to have ideas included in product roadmaps and shipped to production in as short a timeframe as possible.

Hackathons have long been a crucial tool among creative teams, providing a wonderful break from the daily grind and helping to build healthy, innovative spaces to work in. We were delighted that our initial remote hackathon experiment yielded a range of fantastic results and that it has provided solid foundations for future events.

COVID’s impact on the world of work will continue to be felt for years to come and even as many companies begin returning to the office it is likely that some form of hybrid working will remain in place for some time. For now, we have proven to ourselves that remote hackathons can generate ideas that can excite product managers and senior leadership — and we’re excited to refine and improve the format in the future.

If working with the QuantumBlack Labs team sounds like something you’d enjoy, why not join us? We’re always building our team of software engineers, front-end developers, product managers and designers. Have a look at our openings and careers page for current opportunities!

An advanced analytics firm operating at the intersection of strategy, technology and design. www.quantumblack.com @quantumblack