Annual hackathon helps drive SMG’s mission of innovation by inspiring products + technologies that create meaningful change

Employee Spotlight | Nov 12, 2020 Employee Spotlight 11/12/20

SMG’s hackathon is an opportunity for our technology team to think big, collaborate in a fun and unique way, and bring innovative ideas to fruition. Today we sat down with Chief Information Officer Marty Williams; Director, Engineering Holley Breitling; and Technical Team Leader Andy Eaton to learn the ins and outs of the annual event and how the hackathon is helping shape the future of SMG.


How did the hackathon come to be?

Andy Eaton: We drafted a proposal that laid out our vision to further encourage innovation and teamwork across SMG, proposing a 24-hour event where employees would come together to pitch new ideas and work in groups to bring them to life. At the end of the hackathon, the ideas and implementations would be presented to a panel of judges who would vote on their favorite concepts.

It was a huge success. Several of the first hackathon projects inspired products we have today, and a few were adopted behind the scenes to help us manage our engineering practices better.


Why is the event so important to SMG?

Marty Williams: Engineering teams are often given solutions to implement instead of problems to solve. The hackathon gives employees the chance to be part of the solution, which drives innovation and ownership. Rather than being assigned a project, they bring their own ideas to the table. They address personal pet peeves or identify a gap in current systems/opportunities to create. They think big and organically—and it really unlocks creativity and reinvigorates that innovative spirit.


Explain what the hackathon is like from an insider’s point of view.

AE: For me, it is a chance to write code I am proud of that does something I care about. It’s long hours, building something from nothing, and then working to present its value to others. It’s sleep-deprived jokes that are only funny to your team and only because you’re sleep deprived. It’s getting to step out of my normal role and into a different one for a while. It’s also getting to collaborate with people who I don’t typically work with or even get a chance to interact with on a regular basis.


Due to the pandemic, this year’s hackathon was virtual. Did that make a difference?

MW: It changed the format. Instead of a 24-hour in-office sprint, teams had more modified hours over a long weekend. It made it a little less intense, but the elongated timeline offered more flexibility and provided more time to write code and implement projects. The hallmark of any successful hackathon is actual working code—not just an action plan—and these employees gave up their weekend to do that.

Holley Breitling: We were a little nervous the virtual hackathon wouldn’t deliver the same sense of camaraderie that comes with being physically together in one space. But SMG has put a lot of effort into maintaining our company culture while working remotely and that carried over to the hackathon. Most teams left their video sessions running as they worked so they were still able to interact and have those fun conversations together as if they were in the same room. We even got the added perk of seeing some furry friends and kiddos that popped in to say hello.


What were some stand-out winning ideas?

AE: The data science guys really do some pretty cool things every year and it’s hard to compete with them. Last year they came up with a new take on driving accuracy with our text analytics solution and this year they took on the same idea but focused on efficiencies with language translations. Both ideas helped shape SMG’s TA enhancements—guess that’s why they always manage to snatch an award every year!

HB: This was a big year. We had 11 teams, 37 participants, and 15 ideas submitted, which resulted in 536 code commits, 318 push codes, and 5 items that are either in flight or added to the roadmap.


In addition to coming up with some really innovative projects, the team names are always very creative. What are some favorites?

HB: My top 3 are: Arrrg, We Came For Your (Re)booty, Kafkan’t Stop Won’t Stop, and It Isn’t Pretty But It Works.


What’s the future of the SMG hackathon?

MW: To justify pulling these employees off their day-to-day projects and busy schedules, you have to be able to demonstrate the value of this event. We’ve done that. So many of the ideas presented at hackathon are already being implemented or have at least influenced our product roadmap. We’re hoping we can eventually launch this kind of event in other departments too—help reinvent processes across the company. We have smart people here with great ideas and the hackathon is just a tool to unlock that innovation.


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