How to grow your Hackathon culture
The essence of growing a culture is to try different things, to learn from various experiments, to make needed changes, and to try something new. In this way, the culture continues growing and flourishing. This is how we’ve grown our Hackathon culture throughout the years at Ericsson. Get inspired from our hackathon story!
Building Hackathons that thrive
In April 2013, 10 pioneers from Ericsson Finland gathered to work on four different ideas in what would be Ericsson Finland’s first Hackathon. It was a small-scale event, but a great start for our Hackathon culture.
In November 2013, the first ever Ericsson multisite Hackathon took place. It was already the fourth Hackathon held at Ericsson Finland that year. This time, we invited some of our colleagues from Hungary and Croatia to participate. The visitors were excited about the event, and who wouldn’t be?!
At the same time, other Ericsson sites were having their own Hackathons locally. Finally, in 2015, we joined forces and had the first Ericsson Global Hackathon. Altogether 14 Ericsson sites from Europe, Asia and the Americas joined. Almost 350 participants hacked around the theme “Fix your world” and came up with 100 ideas.
Nowadays, we have Ericsson Global Hackathons several times a year. In the biggest ever Hackathon so far, we had over 600 participants around the world hacking on over 200 ideas – a truly inspiring effort!
At Ericsson, we actually call these events Hackathons/Non-Hackathons. Not all of us code, and so to make it possible for all employees to participate at these marvelous events we decided to also call them Non-Hackathons, or non-coding Hackathons. To put it simply, the only difference is that implementing a Hackathon idea requires coding and implementing a Non-Hackathon idea does not.
Most of the participants still code, of course. However, some of the participants improve our ways of working, and design new team building activities, for example. This format is so intriguing – we’ve even had leadership teams participating!
In 2014, we started enhancing the learning aspect of the Hackathons and decided to offer learning sessions throughout the 28 hours of the event. It turned out that the employees usually participating in the Hackathons were asked to teach others, so we couldn’t have the Hackathon at all. But we did have our first ever Learnathon instead.
Nowadays, many of the Non-Hackathon participants use the event for learning. For example, in our latest Non-Hackathon, many teams participated in a “Threat modeling made easy” workshop and learned to play the “Elevation of Privilege” card game.
And of course, also all Hackathon participants learn while they’re hacking. They try out new tools, new open-source components, and new ways of doing things, for instance.
Hackathon themes and challenges
In our Hackathons, we have a theme and challenges. Still, the theme and the challenges are there only to inspire, so an idea doesn’t need to be connected to the theme nor the challenges to participate in a Hackathon. You can participate with any idea – anything you’re passionate about!
Besides inspiration, we use the theme to guide us towards the Hackathon, meaning that we usually arrange several TechTalks, hands-on sessions and other inspirational events related to the theme before the actual hacking starts.
One of the most memorable themes was related to gaming. In 2014, we wanted to learn from the gaming industry, to get new insights on how to do things. First, we had external TechTalks on board games and mobile games. Thereafter, people wanted to learn about gaming algorithms, so we had an internal TechTalk about it – conveniently we had an in-house expert on this topic. After the TechTalks, further training was proposed, and the request was: “An introduction to the most commonly used software tools and practices in the gaming industry.” Thus, we still had a Unity Tutorial (Unity being a cross-platform game engine developed by Unity Technologies), which was a hands-on session before the Hackathon.
But the greatest thing of all was our Game Jam, a game-playing event. One part of our old factory building was transformed into a huge gaming arena. We had both old and new video games. You could play traditional board games, table tennis, foosball, table hockey, and much more. You could even be a rock star in the Rock Band Club with sound and light enforcement.
In 2016, we wanted to get the business side of the company more involved in our Hackathon culture and we therefore decided to try out a Shark Tank approach, hacking on real challenges that we and our customers have. The challenges were pitched by the Sharks (our product managers), to the hackers.
While preparing for the Hackathon, the teams got to present their ideas to the Sharks. Each team gave an elevator pitch, after which, the Sharks and the rest of the audience had a chance to ask questions and give feedback.
In the course of the Hackathon, teams worked hard to get ready for the demo session with the Sharks. At demo time, as always, it was amazing to see how much could be achieved in such a short period of time if you’re able to fully concentrate on something!
Our first Shark Tank Hackathon has probably been the most successful Hackathon so far, as several of the ideas are now in production.
Not only hacking
Hacking is of course not the only thing we do during the Hackathons. The social aspect of them is also extremely important. So, besides hacking, we also spend time together: we eat pizza and snacks, play table tennis, foosball or guitar, and, as we’re in Finland, many go to a sauna, of course.
Our developers have been participating at external Hackathons and winning them, like in 2016 when we won Industryhack.
In 2018, we decided that besides organizing our internal Hackathons, we wanted to participate in organizing Hackathons externally and we partnered with Junction, Europe’s leading Hackathon, for the first time. It was a really cool event, so we also joined last year.
Pen test Hackathon
Our Hackathon culture includes of course real hacking that involves organizing internal Pen test (penetration test) Hackathons. In a Pen test Hackathon, participants get a chance to try and hack our products for 24 hours. The aim is to discover and fix unknown security vulnerabilities, in addition to building up hacking competence.
On the Pen test side, we’ve moved forward too, as we partnered with Traficom and Ultrahack to organize the 5G Cyber Security Hackathon, an external Pen test Hackathon, last year.
Going fully virtual
At the Ericsson Global Hackathons/Non-Hackathons, the participating sites have always been connected by a video session throughout the event, and we have had common sessions during the Hackathons, like a kick-off, for example. In April 2020, we took this to a whole new level and organized the first ever company-wide, fully virtual hackathon.
The one thing that having a fully virtual hackathon contributed to, was the number of cross-site teams, which was far higher than ever before. For example, the team in the picture above has members from three different sites, but there were even teams with participants from six different countries, which is just amazing.
The thing is, Hackathons/Non-Hackathons give us all endless possibilities to do things we are passionate about with like-minded people. And this is when the magic happens! So, what can you say, we have been growing our hackathon culture, and oh boy, it has grown. I’m sure it will grow even further in the future through new experiments.
Check out our open positions, so that you can join also our internal Hackathons in the future!
Read about Ericsson’s involvement in IoThon 2019.