At the time of writing, SiteMinder is three sleeps away from holding its annual Hackathon. As always, the excitement is real and it’s particularly big this year because, for the first time, we’ve extended the invitation to not only our product and tech teams, but to every person in the company.
To understand why we’ve made that decision, it’s worth reflecting on the process of manufacturing a car. What technical teams do really well is stay on the factory floor and labour away, getting their hands dirty albeit perhaps disattached from the conversations happening around them. They focus on building all the parts separately before finally bringing them together, intricately and seamlessly, to produce a great car that they can’t wait for the world to see. They excel at producing these great cars.
But the question is: can they build a great car from start to finish under the constraints of a limited time frame and finite resources? And, more importantly, is that car something that a customer wants to buy? Could it be an even greater car if those teams engaged others?
As tech companies, we’ve become synonymous with innovation and creativity, and we should be. We have the power to fundamentally design the world we live in, and to change the behaviours and desires of an entire society or generation of people.
However, as consumers, we know that not every product that hits the shelf is a product that we either need or want. And, therein lies the challenge.
Our responsibility as tech companies is to build the products that customers need or want to buy.
Sure, we can excel at only manufacturing cars, but a more holistic approach would see us asking the questions that matter to the customer and end user. Which features are crucial and which are nice-to-haves? How can we design the interior for an optimal driving experience? Which robust materials can we use before we blow our costs out of the water? What size could accommodate a family?
It is this customer-focused mindset that we want our people to get into. Customer focus is the critical trait that every tech company must hardwire into all its people, including its engineers.
Disrupting the mindset
The annual SiteMinder Hackathon is an intensive, 72-hour exercise aimed at increasing the professional creativity and self-expression of our people. Any team member with a passion for problem-solving can participate and, by nature of being a tech company, that essentially means every employee, whether their background is in product or tech, business strategy, customer support, marketing, onboarding, sales, operations, HR or finance. For 72 hours, those team members collaborate to take an idea or real-life problem and develop a unique solution and strategy together.
What excites engineers about hackathons is the collective experience of blocking out the calendar, having permission to be free from limitations, being able to experiment, having the flexibility to support and build something that they’re passionate about, and then showcasing the finished product – as well as the collective smarts of the people who brought it to life.
On the day-to-day, engineers aren’t immune to the OKRs and company goals that we all need to hit. As employees, they need to be as in tune with the needs of the business as everybody else. They need to align themselves to those and to focus on those. A hackathon serves as a divergence from those business needs. It’s an opportunity to let the mind run free and do something different from the daily grind, because, as engineers, they’re never short of ideas. Yet, the reality is that, on the day-to-day, they have very healthy backlogs to work through.
Where innovation meets business
Having participated in and run many hackathons throughout my career, what I personally love is the fact that you can never predict the ideas that will emerge. I especially look forward to seeing how those ideas evolve into strategies and solutions, and how they’re pitched to the panel of judges.
Pitching is all about training the mind to think about the customer. It’s about helping our people to understand that, at the end of the day, products have to generate revenue. To take a fully-fledged product to market, it has to solve for a real need or want and be commercially viable. It has to be user-friendly and intuitive in its front-end design, because it’s that tip of the iceberg that customers see – and what we want them to see. As for what’s floating underneath, from an operational and process standpoint, is it sustainable, reliable and cost-efficient? It should be all of those things.
The bottom line? The product has to be customer-focused.
It also has to be able to hold its ground, and again this requires an understanding of the role that product plays in the life of a customer. When building a mobile app, for example, we know that we have only the size of the screen to work with. Within that screen, we have to compete with essential applications such as email, messaging and banking. How do we make our app so valuable that our customer, among all their many apps, opens and uses ours? This is why pitching is so important. Hackathons may produce 100 great app ideas, but only one or two can make it to a customer’s home screen.
Getting into the right mindset, every day of the year
On the first morning of SiteMinder’s Hackathon, instead of jumping into their usual team huddle, our people will be enjoying their favourite hot beverage and setting up their environment to get the creative juices flowing. For those that are visual, that might mean getting out the pens and paper. For others, it will be about redesigning the room in a way that’s conducive to their thinking. There will be some who need background music or a quick walk around the block to clear their heads.
No matter how they go about their day, what’s important is their journey and their mindset. It isn’t about spending three days on an experience that they’ll forget about the next day. It’s about being fully present for an experience that they’ll be wiser from and will always remember. And, it isn’t about hacking another useless shiny gadget together. It’s about creating something meaningful and of value, to both the geniuses that bring it to life and to the customer they build it for.
Hackathons are a great way to instil this mindset into our people, but it’s important, as tech companies, that we create and nurture a customer-focused culture not annually, but all year round. Not only among our leaders, but among every team member, from those on the front-line through to those who may not always be visible to the customer but are building and maintaining the products that customers love.