Hack-a-thons have become an important part of OpenDNS and integral to our culture. Wrapping our first for 2016, I thought it would be nice to reflect on their importance.

A few times a year our employees gather together for 24 hours of collaboration. Our team members get to work with other employees they may not typically work with and experiment on something totally new.

OpenDNS uses agile methodologies to drive engineering and creativity. OpenDNS believes that the core of agile’s values is knowledge and experimentation. Hack-a-Thons generate bold experiments that many people may otherwise not try, and force people to step out of their comfort zones and really push themselves. Creating an environment that forces radical instinctive decisions and fast iterations helps spark creativity you normally don’t see.

While many companies focus hack-a-thons toward their engineers, we like to think a bit bigger by encouraging every employee to participate. We believe this ensures that creativity is driven from all iStock_000090534951_Largecorners of our business. A key part to ensure success is removing the leaders from the process so that people can do what they believe is right based on the data they have. Simplifying the roles in the process cuts through much of people’s personal opinions and projections. Hack-a-thons give decision making power to the employees and empowers the participants to make things better. Hack-a-thons drive excitement and remind us what a group of motivated people can accomplish.

During our last hack-a-thon, IT developed an interactive map to find conference rooms and our Office Manager in Vancouver designed a website to better share information about the office. Any employee is capable of changing a process, solving a business problem, or developing something that disrupts how we do things today. It’s more about training people to be makers and to change the landscape.

Great products have previously surfaced from our Hack-a-thons. By sparking innovation and  disrupting norms, in 24 hours we can change our product roadmap completely. An excellent example was the prototype for what is now a core product, OpenDNS’s Investigate. Others have also followed like, BPGStream, our free Twitter alerting resource for BGP Hijacks and major outages. The impact can be huge but it can also be as simple changing the way we operate, directly benefiting our customers.

There are several ways to host a hack-a-thon, but at OpenDNS, we are sold on the 24 hour time block. hackathon Instead of hacking over an extended period of time, where priorities shift and ideas can become distracted, you are pushed to deliver in a time window. OpenDNS supports our participants with good food, overnight packs, nap tents, swag and prizes. We involve everyone in the company to generate the excitement. Our Design Team developed all the media, from posters to the t-shirts, all in house. The office staff was vital in ensuring everyone had a fun, power generated environment to work in. You can find that some Hack-a-thons have themes to guide people towards a common goal. Generally we don’t use themes, as open-ended Hack-a-thons lend towards out of the box thinking. So we “theme” it based on a common ideal. This past hack-a-thon we focused on “Building Tomorrow”.

At the end of the hack-a-thon, each team will demo the hack and present to anyone in the company who wants to attend. Even though hackers have been up for more than 24 hours, there is something invigorating about seeing your idea actually working. Software is typically so malleable that it is often hard for people to see your vision. This is one reason agile focuses on building the simplest thing, obtaining feedback, and quickly iterating.

Everyone is encouraged to vote on ideas so we can see what the company is most excited about. We have a popular vote and a panel of judges who choose winners based on the technology used, the level of creativity and a winner that exceeds at both.

Immediately afterwards, Product teams will huddle up and decide what should disrupt the roadmap today. Many engineers move their prototypes to implementation phase, if possible. Our last hack-a-thon saw 30 different teams. Within a month, almost 20% of the prototypes were implemented right away and 40% of these new ideas are being planned for implementation this year.

Hack-a-thons enable ground-breaking ideas across the industry. From Facebook’s timeline and like button, to a new logo for the New York Times. All this comes from enabling people to be at their best. We look forward to shipping our latest ideas and what could come next from future hack-a-thons.

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