By Irina Botea & Kevin Barnett, on Oct 2, 2019

Hackathons in the enterprise: Planning innovation initiatives that pay off

If you’re in a team that’s working on existing digital products, you understand the struggle of finding time to dream up and develop new features – even when you know this is what keeps you ahead. One answer to this is to run a hackathon: Take a couple of days to focus on solving specific problems, potentially saving hundreds of hours of development work while keeping engineers happy at the same time. But if you’re part of a big enterprise company, you might be thinking, OK, this works for startups but can it work for me?

Absolutely it can. Earlier this year, we planned and ran a two-day internal hackathon together with engineers from Contenful and teams from our client Telus Digital, the digital lab of a major Canadian telecommunications provider.The event produced several products that made it into production and solved real problems for Telus users.

Just because you’re an enterprise company doesn’t mean you have to stick to trade shows and other traditional event formats. Read on to find out how to make a hackathon a success for your team and for your products.

DSCF3950

Why we ran a hackathon with a multi-billion-dollar telecom company

We had been working with Telus Digital for some time already when they hatched the idea to run a hackathon together, with engineers from both companies. Even though the company itself is big — nearly 60,000 employees big — their engineering teams are user-focused, agile and willing to take risks.

They were of course interested in getting direct input from our engineers to build new Contentful-based solutions, and we wanted to give our teams a chance to have a hands-on look at how clients are using the product. So we got to the task of planning the event from scratch: format, venue, creating Github repos, selecting who would attend, and prizes. The winning team would get an all-expenses-paid trip to Contentful’s headquarters in Berlin!

DSCF3379

Criteria for a successful enterprise hackathon

There are a few prerequisites for actually getting the results you want from a hackathon: amazing features in production, happy teams, insights you can use over the long term. The most important factor is mindset: It doesn’t matter if you’re a startup or a multi-billion-dollar corporation, you have to be willing to let go of control and get your hands dirty. Telus Digital checked all of these boxes, which was a huge factor in making this event a success.

1. Be ready to give your engineers freedom

If you want engineers to be creative, you need to give them space to do so. Free them from other projects and be strict about keeping daily business off of their minds during the hackathon. Let them pick the projects they want to work on and which tools to use.

2. Be willing to collaborate and open source some code

For the Telus x Contentful hackathon, it was crucial that we were able to collaborate on projects, many of which touched existing Telus products. This meant that Telus needed to take a leap of faith and open source some of their code on Github, a step that some enterprise companies might find a little scary.

3. Make sure your development teams are ready

To get long-term results out of a hackathon, you need an in-house engineering team, not an agency, building your products. You can’t keep insights that you don’t own. This team should be knowledgeable about the technology they’re hacking on and have an agile mindset. The Telus engineers were incredible to work with because they already had a deep knowledge of Contentful and a shared understanding of agile development. The hackathon teams could get down to building exciting implementations together very quickly.

4. Define what you hope to gain

It might sound contrary to the point about giving developers freedom, but it’s important to manage expectations and know in advance what outcomes you want to achieve. Do you want concrete products pushed to production? Or is the main point to foster cross-team collaboration? This will help you set the frame for the hackathon.

Getting the right people in the room

DSCF3408

Before we even landed at Telus headquarters in Toronto, we needed to do our homework. The first step was to find out exactly what Telus Digital wanted to achieve and where their pain points were. This set the context for who would take part.

On the Contentful side, we ran our own mini-hackathon in Berlin to decide which engineers would get to fly over and hack with the Telus teams. Based on their goals, we also made sure to include not just engineers, but other specific individuals (like product managers) that would help them achieve the results they wanted. Telus Digital also brought in teams from other locations that included PMs, designers, and even editors and content managers to get a practitioner’s perspective on some specific challenges. With our party gathered, we were ready to venture forth to Toronto.

What it looks like in practice

The two-day hackathon had no maximum number of teams, but each team was limited to six people, with at least one Contentful engineer in each team. On the first day, people from Telus Digital had to pitch their ideas and then form teams. Their Contentful counterparts picked which team they would work with based on where they thought they would be the most helpful.

BLOG mosaics template-02

What followed was two glorious days of planning, scrums, whiteboarding and busy keyboards. Teams developed their own rhythms and rituals, and things started to gel. I couldn’t possibly describe it better than Wiktoria, one of our backend engineers, did in her vlog:

The final presentations were live-streamed to Contentful’s Berlin office and held in front of a panel of external judges. Based on impact for users, ease of shipping, and overall “OMG” factor, they selected three winning teams. The second place team built a working prototype for a Telus blog on top of Contentful, an idea originally pitched by one of their editors. The first place team managed to create a solution integrating Contentful and Adobe Target to drastically simplify personalization and A/B testing on the Telus app.

BLOG mosaics template-01

And our teams definitely got their chance to see Contentful used in action. As Wiktoria put it: “Watching people actually using what you’ve developed and shipped is mindblowing (...) You have no idea how people are going to use something until you start watching them.”

Tangible, long-term results

Fast forward to three months later: The top two winning projects went live and are in production at Telus.

The “one blog to rule them all” project, launched for Telus Digital, is now a fully functional in-house product that’s integrated with their digital platform. If it’s rolled out across the nine publications under the Telus brand, it can potentially save the company up to $170,000 per publication, and solve a number of performance, accessibility and multilingual issues.

The Beyond Insights extension for Contentful with Adobe Target and Adobe Analytics is now being used every day by practitioners at Telus to automate and scale A/B tests and personalization, resulting in hundreds of hours saved running manual A/B tests. This awesome team won the grand prize and joined us at Contentful HQ in Berlin to further develop their extension.

“This event had a tremendous impact as we've launched projects that have improved performance, overall quality and standards of TELUS platform. Also, the cross-collaboration during the event within TELUS squads helped to encourage platform thinking, understand each other pain points better and solve and improve our products.”Nika Karliuchenko, Telus Digital product owner, Content Platforms

For us at Contentful, the hackathon gave us valuable user insights. On top of the eye-opening collaborations between our engineers, the product managers who joined were even able to validate some items in our product roadmap through having those direct customer interactions.

DSCF3290

What we (at Contentful) loved

We organize a lot of events and meetups each year, but this one was special. It was a chance for our engineers to see their product in action, take a moment to shine and see the value that they bring to our customers. Customers who are so much like them – teams of engineers and product people who are excited to create something new. For those of us on the planning side, the magic was in seeing engineers from both companies be passionate and proud of what they built.

Want to know more about how Contentful can help boost innovation at enterprise companies? Request a demo here.

Irina Botea

As global field marketing lead for Contentful, Irina brings together the Contentful team, community and clients IRL. Catch her at events from Berlin to San Francisco to London, or on Twitter.

Kevin Barnett

Engineering Manager, Frontend