Crew hackathons: making the most of training time

Metail provides a yearly training budget for all employees consisting of both time and money, but we found that many employees were not making the most of this opportunity. We decided to look into why this is and work on increasing the uptake. One idea we had was around hackathons – pairing people together to do small hackathons together sounds more fun than just reading a book by yourself!

One-to-ones help uncover trends

From my one-to-ones I found that the main reason people were not using the training days was because they weren’t sure what to do with them. If people were going to a conference or working toward a qualification or certification it was easy to identify the time spent on that as ‘training’. But what if you are already qualified? or there isn’t a conference on this quarter? or you want to spend some time testing out new technology?

Crew Hackathons

I came up with the idea of running some small hackathons within the crew and suggested we could use training days for these. The idea is that people will pair for a couple of days to create something new. This aligns with our company values: being in this together, actively learning, trust to deliver, and making a difference. But I also wanted to push the joy/excitement axis up a bit as well (see previous post).

Because people never want an extra meeting, we decided to schedule this as a special retrospective session. We kept the happiness axis exercise and collected a few actions based on that, but we spent most of the hour running a hackathon proposal exercise outlined below:

  • Everyone tries to write down a couple of ideas for 2-day projects they would like to work on, and spends a couple of minutes to get others excited about it.

  • Vote proposals. Everyone has 2 votes to pick a project (other than their own). Only projects with 2 or more votes survive.

The projects do not need to be directly related to work, but we should learn something from them. The idea is to spend one day together working out designs, and another day creating a prototype or something usable.

I explained the exercise a week in advance, so people had time to think of projects before the meeting.

Deciding on projects

The exercise went well and everyone seemed quite excited. It turns out that a few people had similar ideas, so we grouped some projects together. We then drew a matrix so everyone could cast their votes. This is how the whiteboard looked:

Hackathon Matrix

The top row of the matrix has the people initials, with the number of available training days written below.

We (a team of seven) decided to work on 3 projects. The projects with more votes will have a couple of hackathons associated with them – this is particularly useful if we can’t get together all at the same time. We can also start thinking at this stage if we are going to need any materials, e.g. books, that we need to buy before we get started.

Scheduling the hackathons

We have the ideas, the people, and most importantly, the excitement, so now it’s just a matter of scheduling these hackathons. If a person is working for the full 10 days in a sprint, they instantly become candidates for any of the hackathons they showed interest in. If we can find someone else interested in the same project who has enough training days available, we pair them together and schedule it in the sprint.

Some of these projects have more than two people interested – in this case we have a 1-hour meeting with everyone interested in it, to come up with a plan and decide how we’ll split the work. For instance, if it was a project that involved four developers and two different platforms, one group could work on one platform one sprint, and the other group could do the other platform the following sprint.

Conclusion

Small hackathon exercises can be helpful for people that don’t know what to do with their training days. Other people can bring ideas that suddenly open the curiosity box, and we can turn the learning exercise into a shared experience. Just as it is, it’s a valuable experience. But some of the projects can even turn into something bigger that brings additional value to the company. I think it’s probably worth running this exercise every quarter, to disconnect from your main duties and refresh a bit. If you can’t find the time to run this, just pack it inside one of your retrospectives. You can always use the happiness axis for a swifter retrospective, and move straight away into finding topics for the hackathons.

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