8 Secrets to a Next-Level Hackathon

Dan Lawyer

Reading time: about 6 min

Topics:

  • Behind The Scenes

Our annual Hackathon is an amazing part of Lucid’s culture. My first hackathon experience came within a few months of my arrival at Lucid in 2019—and I was not prepared for the awesomeness and craziness that was about to take place. 

We were encouraged to invite friends and family to the final presentation and judging of the hackathon projects, so I invited a former colleague to come and enjoy the afternoon. It was a carnival-like environment; there was food, entertainment, and a self-guided tour from pod to pod to watch the teams demo what they had created over the last few days. My friend said she was thoroughly impressed by the energy, the creativity of the projects, and the entertainment (and she still hasn't forgotten the variety act where a well-loved Lucid employee stuffed $4 in quarters up his nose.)

But beyond the entertainment and enthusiasm for hackathon, I was amazed at the range of projects. Some were straight-up brilliant extensions to our product; others were fixes that had bugged us for a long time. Some were hardcore low-level performance initiatives; others were tooling to make our jobs easier and to allow us to deliver value to our customers faster. We had people from engineering, product management, UX, product analytics, systems engineering, marketing, customer education, and almost every other part of the company participating on hackathon teams.

So what makes Lucid Hackathons so iconic? Here are eight things I have found that contribute to successful hackathons:

1. Strong executive support

Lucid Hackathons start at the top. Our CEO and other executives are a core part of the early planning discussions, reviewing the projects, celebrating together, and judging the winners. Our executives are fully invested and are key to getting the entire company excited about it every year.

2. Consistency

Lucid has been holding hackathons consistently for nearly a decade. This consistency has led to the annual Lucid Hackathon being a critical part of our culture. People plan on it and plan around it. Months beforehand, people are thinking about what projects they might take on and who they might partner with. No one is allowed to write a line of code before go-time, but their minds are definitely spinning.

3. Planning and investment

We don’t take a haphazard approach. A planning committee has been working on our upcoming hackathon plans for months. There is a specific budget set aside to cover travel, food, and entertainment—and of course, there’s an annual Lucid Hackathon shirt that is always cherished by the participating teams. 

We think through every element: How to make the kickoff awesome, how to keep the teams fueled, how to celebrate, how to judge, and what the entertainment will be. And most importantly, there’s always careful deliberation around whether AC/DC’s Thunderstruck will once again be the theme song—and if so, how to best incorporate that into videos of Lucid executives (including myself) jamming out.

4. Traditions

During our planning, we embrace hackathon traditions new and old. People are looking forward to seeing what costume Brian (our SVP of Engineering) might have on this year. Will I do another pool dive? Is Jarom (our Senior Director of Product) going to do his usual “hack the hackathon” strategy? People know that when Thunderstruck plays, it is time to code. They know deodorant will be awarded to the team that most needs it. And they know that the video presentations for the projects will be taken to the next level.

5. High ownership for teams

One of our core values at Lucid is individual ownership and empowerment, and hackathon is a key place where we see that value at work. Teams are given broad latitude in what they choose to do; they don’t need to get approval. If anyone wants inspiration, there is a ready list of ideas and a queue of people with a twinkle of a product concept in their eye. Anyone can start a project and join the team that speaks most to them.

This freedom continues as the teams form and individuals choose how they want to contribute to the project, what the project goals and scope will be, and how much sleep they want to forego in order to get it across the finish line. All of these decisions are left up to the team. They even have full creative license over the approach and production of their pitch video that will be shared on the final day of the Lucid Hackathon!

6. Cultural expectation of participation

Although participation is optional, there is strong encouragement and a cultural expectation that everyone in product development joins a team, and there’s an open invitation across the company for anyone to come join hackathon. It’s a highlight of Lucid’s culture for all of our interns and new Lucidites.

At other companies I’ve worked at, hackathons don’t get near this level of cultural buy-in. It’s often treated as just a fun side-project for engineering and product teams, with other teams not even knowing it’s happening. At other companies, hackathons can start to feel like a rote exercise to check off your to-do list and aren’t treated with enthusiasm, because the company doesn’t have a track record of actually implementing hackathon projects into the product. This is not the case at Lucid!

7. Fanfare, celebration, and showmanship

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to bring a little showmanship to everything, even bringing my karaoke mic to Zoom meetings. Fanfare and celebration run high from the kickoff through the final award ceremony. The music jamming, the elements of fun, the sense of excitement and anticipation–all of these set the tone at kickoffs because you know something amazing is about to happen. You’re anxious to go. It feels like the beginning of an epic off-road race. After kickoff, food and snacks are abundant over the next few days. 

When time is up, not only does coding stop, but the final presentation videos must also be submitted. These presentation videos are highly expressive of the combined personality of the team and are usually quite humorous, filled with inside jokes. They’re also quick to highlight the value and future value of the concept. The videos are shown rapid-fire style with the entire company invited to watch. There are people’s choice awards along with awards from a panel of judges (typically made up of executives from across the company).

8. Hackathon projects make it into our products

Perhaps the most inspiring and motivating aspect of our Lucid Hackathon comes after those last awards are given and the festivities are finished. At the conclusion of our Hackathon, a rapid evaluation is done of each project to assess the fitness and potential timing for release into our production environment. Not every project makes the cut, as some were never intended for public consumption. But others are fantastic proofs of concept that get placed on our product roadmaps. Others need a lighter lift, requiring just a little polish over a sprint or two before being released. It is truly amazing to see the creativity and autonomy of teams at work developing even more value for our customers and for Lucid.

I can hardly wait for our 2022 Hackathon to begin and to see what our teams come up with this year.

Dan Lawyer is the Chief Product Officer at Lucid Software.

About Lucid

Lucid Software is a pioneer and leader in visual collaboration dedicated to helping teams build the future. With its products—Lucidchart, Lucidspark, and Lucidscale—teams are supported from ideation to execution and are empowered to align around a shared vision, clarify complexity, and collaborate visually, no matter where they are. Lucid is proud to serve top businesses around the world, including customers such as Google, GE, and NBC Universal, and 99% of the Fortune 500. Lucid partners with industry leaders, including Google, Atlassian, and Microsoft. Since its founding, Lucid has received numerous awards for its products, business, and workplace culture. For more information, visit lucid.co.

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