Innovating at Blue Medora with Blue Medorathon

by bluemedora_editor on August 22, 2017

Welcome to Engineering Talk Tuesdays, a new series on the Blue Medora Blog where we feature posts from our engineering team, chatting about everything from their favorite technology to what it’s like to work at Blue Medora. 

 

By: Rick Pocklington

Blue Medora has a lot of events and quirks that our engineers love, but nothing is more anticipated than our quarterly Blue Medorathons. This hackathon is a 16-hour event where the engineering team puts aside their regular project work to build something new and interesting and experimental.

A good Blue Medorathon project has three elements:

  • You learn something
  • You work with someone new
  • You build something useful

 

Here at Blue Medora, learning serves as a core value for our teams. Building software to monitor the whole stack, our engineers need to understand the whole stack, the tools used to manage each layer and how everything interacts. Hiring for this complete knowledge is unrealistic, so we hire people who can learn and empower them to learn as much as possible. Out of Blue Medorathon, engineers have pioneered new languages, tools, architectures and product ideas within the company. The opportunity to feed our love for learning serves as part of what makes Blue Medorathon so fun.

In addition to learning new technologies, I find that Blue Medorathon offers additional benefits. For example, by working with different people, employees break down barriers, understand the business problems in other areas, and learn new techniques. They also improve camaraderie and give everyone a chance to find new friends at work. This allows us to keep cross-department communication flowing and limit siloing.

We have one official rule for Blue Medorathon: Projects should be useful to Blue Medora. Improvements have included increased automation, better communication, internal tooling and even entire new product lines. Of course there are plenty of failures, too. With only two days of engineering time lost, this provides for extremely cheap, low-risk, bottom-up innovation to occur.

Blue Medorians begin sharing their project ideas weeks before the event, and those without a project join an existing team on the day of. There’s no formal organization to this – everyone is expected to self-organize into teams. This empowerment is consistent with the way we always try to work, letting everyone make their own decisions on the best way to get the job done.

Each Blue Medorathon begins at 8:00 a.m. on a Thursday. Hacking runs until 10:00 p.m. that night, when everyone presents on their projects until midnight. As a bonus (and to recover), we all take the following Friday off. Going 16 hours straight lets us keep the momentum going, and the long weekend is always nice. Lunch and dinner is provided for the whole company and foosball tournaments provide useful breaks.

 

We’ve had nine Blue Medorathons over the last three years and it’s always a learning experience. Here are a few things we’ve learned:

  • Give hackers a deadline for system requests ahead of the hackathon. As our engineers plan out their projects, we encourage them to establish their system requests and communicate them well ahead of the hackathon. This way, we can ensure that DevOps has enough time to stand up those systems.
  • Leave time for presentations. Build in time for them to create their presentations, as well as give them. This will take much longer than you originally anticipate. In addition, feel free to add other teams within the organization to listen in on the presentations — we’ve had a lot of interest from marketing, sales and even operations to see what we’re building.
  • Set a realistic time. The first time we held the Blue Medorathon, we attempted 24 hours straight — that burned everyone out quite quickly. We’ve found that 16 hours is about the ideal time for people to work through and still have energy to present their work afterwards. It also helps to know that we have a day off to follow!

The Blue Medorathons are a great way to build innovation and camaraderie on a software development team. If you can, I’d highly recommend getting a hackathon started at your company. If you can’t? Apply to work at Blue Medora.

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