What is a Hackathon?
Hackathon (n.): An event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of nerds meet to engage in collaborative computer programming and other rambunctious activities.
There are a lot of different reasons to have a Hackathon: as a competition, recruiting event, or to focus and deliver on a large, specific initiative. At Zocdoc, Hackathons are about innovation as well as camaraderie. We keep our Hackathons internal but they are not restricted to just developers; they are open to anyone in our technology department, including product managers and IT support. Our last Hackathon, in November 2017, was our 16th successful event, since starting the program in 2010.
The goals of a Hackathon are the 3 H’s:
- Hacking – work on innovative projects
- Hanging – getting to know colleagues
- Housing – cool location, change of scenery
“Hackathon is like Spring Break for the enlightened, where Panama City Beach is replaced by an epiphanous cabin in the woods. Only that this time the cabin was a mansion for pseudo-decadent archaeology near an affordable clothing outlet, for our occasional hiking mood.” — Mustafa Rizvi, 2nd Best dressed Engineer @ Zocdoc.
Preparing for a Hackathon
We run an internal event called ZocTank, based off the popular competition show Shark Tank. Everyone from the company, not just tech, is given an opportunity to pitch potential projects for us to work on. This a fantastic place for our developers to get a handle on the great ideas (or irritating workflows) that teams from other areas of our company have. A lot of times these are quality of life changes for operations and support teams such as better internal tooling or workflow improvements that save time. This enables the whole company to be involved, and provides a way for the technology team to give back.
Hackathon Planning Committee
You can’t run a successful Hackathon without planners. Our team consists of five fun-gineers, who are in charge of every planning aspect from finding the right house to coordinating the trip there. Often the members rotate, but it’s a good idea to solicit veterans who have at least gone to one previous hackathon, as they’ll have a better idea of fun activities, or what needs improving.
Hackathon projects aren’t exclusive to ones pitched during ZocTank. Developers have the option of working on projects of their own volition. Many developers save their side projects for Hackathon. Sometimes it can be exploring new tools and technologies or learning new languages (e.g. backend dev doing frontend). There is generally a lot of flexibility and freedom in choosing Hackathon projects, within reason.
Zocdoc organizes two hackathons a year, a Spring Hack and a Fall Hack. Hackathons used to be a single four-day session, but since our team is constantly growing, we’re up to three sessions now, two that take place off-site, and one at the office for people who can’t make it out of the city to stay. We try our best to avoid overlapping with holidays and other company events. After all, Hackathon is our most popular annual event, and everyone wants to attend.
What’s a hackathon without the hackhouse? Our hackathons have 30-40 people each session, this requires us to look for large vacation houses outside of New York City, such as the Hamptons in Long Island or further out in Connecticut. The hackhouse must fulfill a few requirements:
- It has to fit 30+ people
- It has to be a reasonable distance from the office
- It has to have sweet amenities (e.g. swimming pool, basketball court, arcade machines, …etc)
You can’t have a big event without celebrating it with some swag. Every Hackathon has a unique and exclusive item of apparel to go with it, whether it be a shirt, sweater, or sweatpants (ZocSocks are coming soon, I swear!) to commemorate the event. These usually end up becoming sought after collectors items, and are often worn around the office to show off one’s participation. I’ve personally been to eight hackathons and rock my “Hackathon 9” hoodie with pride.
Handling logistics for getting all the attendees and equipment to the Hackhouse isn’t an easy task. We organize a bus (~50 seater) to transport the engineers to the hackhouse. We rent a U-Haul and load it up with computer equipment, air mattresses, pillows, sheets, and network gear. It’s just like a camping trip, but with computers. All the essentials for a three-night hacking session. Well, all the essentials but the food and beer…that’ll be waiting for us at the hackhouse.
We collaborate with local vendors to cater lunch and dinner and we get snacks delivered daily from the local supermarket (usually Peapod). The snacks generally include loads of code-fueling ingredients for the late night hacking. Personally, I convert Mountain Dew and Pizza Rolls to code, while others prefer Red Bull and saltier snacks such as Tostitos Hint of Lime (inside joke). Regardless of the favorite fuel, the equation is pretty obvious at a Hackathon. Caffeine + Salty snack = Code. And yes of course, there will be beer for those who choose to indulge (several kegs to achieve that Ballmer’s peak). For our summer Hackathons, we also get an ice cream truck to come on premise for an additional dairy catalyst.
What else goes on during a Hackathon?
Hack-athlon – Compete in at least 1 outdoor sport, 1 board game, 1 video game, and 1 pull request in the span of a Hackathon. Hackathon goers are encouraged to participate in a “Hack-athlon” during each session.
Engineers are encouraged to participate in activities besides just working on their project. There are usually quite a few distractions that come with the house’s amenities, such as a swimming pool or a billiards pool table, table tennis or outdoor tennis, and video games or board games. Hackathon is a competition after all. Our Executive Leaders tend to drop by for a visit; fully prepared to participate. Nothing like a friendly game of basketball against the Executive team.
What happens after a Hackathon?
How do you know a Hackathon is successful? Well, you should show off the results. We have demo showcases of the projects. We schedule weekly demo sessions (two or three sessions) and ask presenters to show their work, whether it’s a prototype or fully-live feature in production.
After the demos, there are lots of learnings to take in. What works? What doesn’t work? What has potential? Hackers can continue work on their hackathon projects, completing or polishing them, or scraping them altogether if the research during Hackathon proved otherwise. Committee members gather feedback for general improvement / suggestions (through surveys) and go back to square one to plan the next event. You know it’s a success when you leave the engineers asking “So, when’s the next Hackathon?”
Why have a Hackathon?
To summarize, Hackathons at Zocdoc are run with the goal of innovation as well as camaraderie. Hackathons provide the opportunity to work on new technologies and tools outside of an engineer’s day-to-day responsibilities. As a bonus to attending a fun event, Zocdoc’ers get exposure and mingle with other teams they don’t normally work with on a day-to-day basis. Our engineering organization is constantly growing so it’s hard to get to know everybody, but Hackathon sure does help close that gap. I attended my first Hackathon within 2 weeks of starting, barely knowing anyone but my manager. The event gave me an opportunity to meet and bond with other Zocdoc’ers over board games and other icebreakers. Yes, there is a lot of work that goes into running a Hackathon, but the results are worth it!
About the Author
Tony Zheng is a Senior Site Reliability Engineer and part-time Fun-gineer at Zocdoc. Prior to joining Zocdoc, Tony worked as a Software Engineer at various small startups, and completed his Master’s in Computer Science at Stony Brook University. When he’s not spending time with his Corgi, he is busy microing in games like Starcraft.