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Running a remote hackfest

Hackfests (or hackathons or hack weeks) are a great way to refresh your team, explore new technologies in a low impact manner, and built connections between people. More on hackfests here. I’ve previously run and been part of in person hackfests, but since Culture Foundry is a 100% remote company, that wasn’t going to work. Just like remote work in general requires additional design and awareness, running a remote hackfest requires a bit more thought. We recently ran a one day hackfest and I wanted to share what we learned.

First, in scheduling. When you have an in-person hackfest, it is easy to make sure that everyone overlaps in time. This is important because one of the benefits of the event is the cross pollination and discussion that occurs. If you aren’t communicating synchronously, you miss out on some of this (especially if the timeframe is tight). The solution was to make the hackfest shorter and also ask folks on the west coast to start a bit earlier than normal and folks in other timezones to stay a bit later.

Another issue is collaboration. Luckily, the solution is the same for a hackfest as it is for normal work. Video conferencing (we use zoom) and slack (create a separate channel if you want, channels are free).

Project brainstorming and team creation are more complicated in a remote setting. In an in-person hackfest, both of these can be can be done with a whiteboard in the first thirty minutes of the day. With a remote team, it makes sense to use a google doc for the project brainstorming. This works pretty well, but there can be a bit of confusion around project scope (“what does ‘look at a serverless CMS mean’) that can be dealt with either on slack synchronously or via google docs comments. For picking projects and teams, initially we tried just using slack, but eventually everyone hopped on a video chat, and the consensus was that it’d be better to just have the project selection take place as part of a hackfest kickoff next time.

Presentations were easy, except where A/V concerns came in. One demo (mine!) had an audio component that our video conferencing system didn’t handle well. If someone had wanted to share something physical, that would have been tough as well. But other than that, no real wrinkles were encountered with the end of day hackfest presentations.

Hackfests are a gerat way for any team to work together across typical boundaries and take a break from the grind of every day work. Running one with a remote team is just as easy as with an onsite team; it just takes a bit more planning and some tools.


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