Change ManagementHuman Resources

Want a crash course on early start-up work culture? Try a Hackathon (Eight Insights)

(by Sandhya Krishnamurthy, founder of S2E Consulting)

Last weekend, I participated in my very first ‘Hackathon’. I am code-literate and been a technology Product Manager, but am not a ‘professional’ coder. Since I associated hackathons with coding, I’d stayed away from them. The organizers, The Expat Women, had advertised that participants need not be ‘coders,’ and they were trying to tackle women related challenges. So, wanted to give it a try and I was glad I did!

The experience validated several of my beliefs regarding startup work culture (I have worked in one) and taught me things about gender and age related work culture.

Here’s some context on the event schedule. Generally hackathons are scheduled over 1 or 2 days, typically weekends. This was a 14 hour event and between 9 am – 11:

  • people pitched product ideas to recruit team members,
  • participants joined teams based on ideas and their own skills,
  • these newly formed teams (of mostly strangers) worked for 8 -10 hours to create a product/ solution prototype and
  • presented it to a team of judges.

(Onsite mentors helped teams as needed. Food and non-alcoholic beverages were provided throughout the day.)

I joined a team of five others; very talented and smart women, in my case. It was an all-woman event. We worked on an idea/ solution aimed at bridging the gender gap in STEM fields, i.e., encouraging girls/ women to take up STEM professions. And, we won the “Best Solution” prize at the event!

My insights have less to do with our solution, but with the process of working effectively to develop a solution under a set of constraints.

Insights 1- 4: Early stage start-up and hackathon environments are similar in many ways

A hackathon environment is similar to one in early-stage startups (minus the food and the onsite mentors). In a startup, you have one or two founders with an idea looking for people with complementary skills. They have a deadline – mostly imposed by cash constraints – to bring their idea to life and build a company. Teammates join for the upside potential rather than the immediate reward (salary). So, hackathons can provide a crash course on working in early stage tech-focused startups in any field e.g., ConsumerTech, FinTech, InsurTech, HealthTech, RegTech, etc. And hackathon insights apply well to early stage “x-tech” startups.

Insight #1: It’s not just about ‘coding’; all business skills matter

 While technology is ubiquitous in all new-age solutions and tech skills are vital, they are not the end all.

In our own team, we had no dedicated software programmers but several ‘code literate’ team members. We had members who could speak for the customers. We had product designers who focused on getting the UX right for this audience; marketers who ensured the copy spoke the lingo of the users. And account/ business professionals who could think through backend business process implications and business model. So, all complementary skills, coding and beyond, are required in hackathons and startups.

Insight #2: Think holistically (stakeholders, business model, process) to develop a ‘product’

Likewise, unless the several ‘backend’ aspects of the solution are thought through, the ‘visible’ product will not be cohesive or compelling. Unless you decide your go-to-market (GTM) strategy and its implications, you cannot design a compelling app since UX and language will depend on the intended user.

Insights #3: Hustle rules!

When you are under pressure to deliver by a deadline (10 hours or 3 months), the team needs to get resourceful. No programmer? let’s focus on creating a prototype using screen designs instead. No time to test potential pricing? let’s research and use proxies based on competition pricing.

It’s all-hands-on-deck, no time to lose, and so space for slackers – be it a hackathon or a startup.

Insight #4: Appreciate that team members may share a passion but not the endgame

In a hackathon as well as in an early stage startup, people decide to work together because they share a common passion. But they don’t all need to share the end game. I attended the Hackathon for an experience, someone else might have done so to add an accomplishment to their LinkedIn profile, someone else for networking.

While end-game differences may not matter in a 12-hour event, it’s important to recognize and appreciate these differences in a longer-term endeavor like building a company.

Insights 5-6: “Winning” takes focus and teamwork

Some aspects of our team dynamics are worth calling out since they might have led to our ‘win’. From my personal experience, I have seen teams crumble when they lack these traits, especially in a startup.

Insight # 5: Delegate and enable all to contribute

While this seems obvious, often founders can get in the way of effectively using their teammates’ skills. For e.g., in an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ situation, if founders hold on to their ‘idea’ strongly and do not incorporate team’s input or micro manage, it can impact morale and efficiency.

In our case, however, the person who pitched the idea was open to changing a few tenets as the team contributed (the name, the GTM strategy, examples, etc.) and pivoted. As a result, team members’ felt valued and felt empowered to move swiftly.

Insight # 6: Think through future possibilities but, have a sharp focus for now

It’s natural to think of multiple possibilities when ideating. But when time is limited, and prototype development depends on concrete examples, it helps to have focus.

In our case, we realized this sooner and zeroed in selecting a couple of use cases for our prototype. The same for the GTM strategy. Whenever we digressed, we reminded yourselves to focus on the deliverable at hand.

Since startup strategy needs to pivot based on new information, sticking to one thing can be a little tricky in startups. But without focus, startups will struggle to pilot any solution in time.

Insight # 7: Yes, an all-women ecosystem makes a difference

In my 15 years of corporate career, I don’t remember ever working in an all-woman team. I have attended an ‘all women’ professional event once or twice. It they were networking events. So, this was my first working session with an all-women professional team. I had no expectations about if and what would be different.

Interestingly, I felt that the “all-women” ecosystem provided a ‘safe’ environment to share thoughts and opinions without being judged. Put simply, it was slightly easier for me to be myself there.

On the positive side, I observed that our team did not have major communication issues: we were accommodating but also vocal with our disagreement. We were also process-oriented/ structured. Whether these were our strengths as individuals or as women, I don’t know.

Insight # 8: If you are a tenured industry professional, work with Millennials to stay relevant

Our team members aged between early 20s to early 40s.

Personally, this experience reiterated that skill and talent come in all ages.

And there is no better way to learn about working effectively with other age groups than immersing in such a workgroup.

If you want to learn to work with or even lead Millennials, you need to spend time in ‘their’ work space. You will learn about the latest tech tools available. You will also learn about listening and finding ways to complement each other. I certainly did.

Heartfelt thanks to my awesome hackathon teammates who taught me a great deal!

A huge thanks to The Expat Women for hosting this amazing event.

If you are a tenured professional looking for ‘startup experience,’ participate in a hackathon.

If you are a business professional – not a programmer – looking for ‘tech product development experience,’ participate in a hackathon.

If you are willing to step out of their comfort zone to learn and contribute to a solution, participate in a hackathon.

It will be worth your time.