Talent and Team

Hacking our culture: How and why we ran our first MERGE hackathon

BY: JAKE LEEMAN | DIRECTOR, EMERGING TECHNOLOGY

MERGE has gone through a lot of growth and change in 2020, one example of which stands out in my mind: the formalization of our digitally focused group and ecosystem called Experience, Engineering and Platforms. One focus of this new EE&P team has been to strengthen ties between other areas of the agency like strategy and creative and prove out our model for collaboration moving forward. Enter the hackathon.

 

The word hackathon is a combination of the words "hack" and "marathon" where hack stands for experimental, creative problem-solving with a playful approach and marathon stands for the duration of the event. The hackathon has its origin in software and hardware engineering, but the concept is now also successfully applied in other industries for developing innovative solutions.

 

A hackathon lasts between 24 and 48 hours and is dedicated to a specific topic or challenge. The participants work in small groups in a unique environment that encourages creative thinking and leads to surprisingly innovative new concepts, ideas, and prototypes. The result of the hackathon is a finished prototype (or at least a clear plan for building one) for an innovative product, service or business model.

 

For our first ever hackathon, we wanted to go big. Creating a bold challenge that would be conducive to big thinking and creative solutions. After some collaborative brainstorming with a small team, we narrowed down the list of potential challenges to three options, landing on one centered around a real-world problem that affected clients in three different verticals we support. 

 

But we were far from ready. Hours and hours of research went into how to run a hackathon well, pulling in tips and tricks from all over the internet to craft something that would work for us. We created a timeline for all of the steps and were off to the races on planning, challenge briefing, participant registration, team selection, judge recruitments, award categories, and prize support.

 

One unique element for our internal hackathon was the format. How best to actually run the event? We landed on utilizing three evenings in the middle of October. This allowed us to continue delivering excellent work for our clients during the week, while also saving the weekends for some precious away-from-work time. In this instance the pandemic helped us out, as we were well used to remote collaboration.

 

In the end 32 people across the full spectrum of roles and locations within MERGE participated in our first ever hackathon. With three nights of work all summed up in eight impressive seven-minute presentations, our judges couldn’t have been happier with the results. After much deliberation, prizes were awarded and everyone was congratulated for their efforts. All of the pitches have been shared with the leads of the three related business areas within MERGE, as well as distributed to the entire organization. 

 

How did it go? Here’s what one hacker, Katie Joyce from our UX team, had to say:

 

 

The adrenaline Hackathons create propels teams to really get creative and think fast to propose outstanding ideas. I loved being able to quickly find synergy with coworkers I typically do not work with to solve a real-world problem with no defined solution. It was inspiring to see all of the final solutions and it showcased how many great ideators there are within MERGE.

Katie Joyce, Senior Designer

Our first ever MERGE hackathon was a huge success. The solutions were amazing, leadership was impressed, and participants shared how much they enjoyed the event. We’ve got big plans to continue with these larger all-agency hackathons, and we’re looking to expand the effort through client-sponsored hackathons that address some specific business challenges they are facing.

 

In conclusion, one question remains. Why did we invest all this effort into creating and running a MERGE hackathon? The answer is quite simple – it epitomizes the culture we’re striving for. Saurab Bhargava, our new Chief Digital Officer summed it up well in our hackathon kickoff event:

 

 

This is who we are. Clients are looking for us to push the envelope. It’s who we are internally, hungry to learn and experiment. And as individuals we are thinkers and tinkerers.

Saurab Bhargava, Chief Digital Officer

We want to truly embrace the idea of creative and technology blending together to create amazing solutions. We want to strategically address real client issues by thinking big and working together across disciplines and locations. The hackathon wrapped these goals up in a challenging, yet fun, package – and we can’t wait until we can do it again!