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Inside the 2021 Notarize Hackathon

The Notarize Engineering team recently held a two-day hackathon aimed at building solutions that would positively impact the company and our partners.
David Steel
June 15, 2021
4 min

The Notarize team recently held its 2021 hackathon. The two-day event was a chance to garner camaraderie among our engineers while building solutions that would positively impact the company and our partners.

Here's how it went.

What is a hackathon?

A hackathon is a competition where teams of software developers are challenged to build a new tool or product. Each team then presents their final product to a panel of judges that scores based on a set of predefined criteria.  

Hackathon projects take all shapes and sizes. They can be focused or open-ended based on the hackathon type and timeline, and contestants can work on anything they’d like.

On top of adding value to the company, there are a number of beneficial reasons for holding an internal hackathon.

  1. First, you get to work with people you might not ordinarily work with. With our Engineering teams focused on their respective design functions, developers don't often get to work with developers outside of their team. This goes for product managers and designers as well, who participated across different teams alongside the engineers.
  2. Hackathons also give developers a chance to break the mold of their daily routines. This is especially true working for a remote-first company, where your day-to-day tasks can feel particularly monotonous. It also offers people the chance to work on projects that are more whimsical and that they get to choose, rather than simply being assigned another task from the company roadmap.
  3. And finally, holding a hackathon helps the Engineering team prove to the rest of the company how much we can accomplish in a short amount of time, all while having some fun in the process.

Planning a remote hackathon

As you can guess, coordinating a hackathon for nearly 40 employees takes quite a bit of planning.

We wanted the hackathon to be a two-day event, which meant clearing everybody's calendar for those two days – pulling them away from their usual work. As such, planning began roughly a month and a half before the actual event.

A committee of four engineers organized the teams, communicated key details, planned the event schedule, and put together a panel of judges to score the final presentations.

Organizers began by requesting project ideas from the entire company. Anything from internal tooling for employees to silly feature requests from customers was fair game, and the responses poured in.

We quickly realized just how many ideas could make our product better, and how passionate our coworkers were about seeing those improvements come to life. However, team sizes averaged 3-4 people, so not all projects were chosen – but a few are better than none!

After gathering the survey results, the planning committee posted them into a shared Google Sheet, where participants could browse and see what other groups chose to work on.

Participants were free to form their own teams; as mentioned before, we encouraged them to "cross-pollinate."

The challenge of being remote

You could feel the excitement the morning of the hackathon. Everyone was ready to go. The teams had no trouble working and coordinating in our remote-first setting; after all, our company had been fully remote for a year now.

But it still didn’t feel the same.

When I think about a hackathon, I picture walking into a bustling room with teammates chatting and laughing, looking over each other's shoulders, and jesting about who can come up with the most ludacris implementation idea. I think of coworkers bonding over lunch in a room filled with stacks upon stacks of pizza boxes, boasting about how their project is a guaranteed winner.

So as I sat alone in my home office, I couldn't help but feel a sense of longing. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed the work I was doing, but I often wondered how the other teams were faring.

And then came the presentations.

Presentations and judging a winner

After a day and a half of non-stop coding, it was time to gather the troops. Everyone met in a Google Meet – including the judges panel, which was composed of managers and other higher-ups outside of engineering.

In order to keep things efficient, each team prepared a few short slides and a pre-recorded video of their new feature or product. This helped move things along and allowed each team to talk over their slides and recording during their allotted time.

I was stunned by the results.

The level of intricacy and detail the teams poured into their projects in such a short time was mind-blowing. I knew our engineers were talented, but this just took the cake. I wish I could've seen jaws dropping in person, because it truly was impressive what had been achieved so quickly.

From speech to text recognition in meetings to multi-factor authentication for users to improved internal documentation, there was a little bit of everything. In those moments, I realized that even though we couldn't be together in the office, all of the hard work put in throughout the event was worth it.

Aside from the presentations running a little longer than planned, logistically we had pulled it off without a hitch. Our meticulous planning paid off, and we couldn't be happier with how it went from an administrative perspective. But more than that we managed to attain the same level of wonder as if we were right there in the same room.

Following the presentations, the judges collaborated on deciding the Top 3 finishers. Teams were judged in four categories: presentation, creativity, wow factor, and impact on the company.

We held another Google Meet to say some final words and announce the winners. The suspense was palpable; it was the moment everyone had been waiting for, and you knew that every team had a shot at one of the top spots. On the line were some nice prizes, not to mention serious bragging rights. But despite that yearning for first place, I think everyone felt validated in what we'd accomplished.

As the judges announced the winners, you couldn't help but smile as people cheered in the Meet. That to me was what the spirit of the hackathon was about, and that spirit was overflowing by the end.

Closing thoughts

Despite having some doubts in the moment as to how successful this would really be, my expectations were exceeded at every turn. Through proper planning and a healthy dose of optimism, we managed to pull off a 100% remote hackathon – an event that is ordinarily centered around in-person interaction.

So would I do it again, and would I recommend it to others? Absolutely!

No matter how you want to run it or what your end goal is, there are limitless ways to customize the rules and format. That's the beauty of a hackathon: it can be tailored to maximize effectiveness and fun for any group of people.

And who knows, maybe for our next company hackathon we will be back together in the office again.

As much as I would love that, at least I know that if it is remote again it will still be a blast. Either way I'm looking forward to it already.

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David Steel

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