For those of you not familiar with the standard company hackathon, it’s a department-wide event where engineers create new(ish) products and services in a short amount of time without having to sweat the standard company process (QA, L&P, general production readiness). 

Ask.com cranks that up a notch. Here, we hack the whole company.

Busting Routines, Building Teams

At any company, It’s all too easy to get caught up in roles and deadlines and forget to step back and think more creatively.  That’s why our Hackathons start by encouraging teams to cross-pollinate. For 24 hours, UX designers and product managers pair with operations personnel, engineers, support staff, marketers, etc.—taking everyone out of their comfort zones and, hopefully, exploding any bad habits. 

“Our Hackathons have many tangible benefits—only one of which is actually launching a product.” Ask CEO Doug Leeds offered. “Sometimes it’ll be the people who worked together, saying, ‘You know, the thing that we worked on (for Hackathon) didn’t necessarily apply to current roadmap—but I like working with you. Let’s continue to team on interesting things.’”

Cracking Code, Going Agile

When your goal is day-to-day maintenance and reliability, there’s often a tendency to rely on legacy systems and code. One of VP of Engineering Nick McCann’s favorite elements of the event is setting his engineers free to work with new and different technologies: Node.js, NoSQL variants…the list goes on.

“We normally code apps in C/C++ or Java.” Nick explained. “But let’s say that (a Hackathon team) decides to create theirs in Node.js (a newer language). It gives them a full day to experiment and work with this language—making our engineers better rounded.” 

Case in point: when we implemented Pollroll—our first Hackathon contender to be launched as an app—we did it in Node.js and used Redis as the data store.

The success of our multi-disciplinary Hackathon teams also helps us speed the current transition of our product development process from the classic “waterfall approach” to a modified single-team/agile/scrum structure (If you’re not familiar with the terminology, just know that it’s a good thing). ;-) 

Creating a New Culture

But the most Ask-specific goal of our two-day company-hack is our plan to forge a company culture of creativity Ask. We began it in earnest months ago with our “Funnovation” applied improv sessions, to encourage and farm innovation. The Hackathon—a full day of intensive email- and meeting-free collaboration—is proving a natural extension as we make the time to execute the best ideas. 

Sure, we want to create the next great service (more on that—and our winners—in Wednesday’s post)…but our Hackathons go beyond that. They’re a pilot program for what we want Ask to be: unified, nimble, supportive, and above all, innovative. 

Here’s a few more photos from the event itself. Tune in Wednesday when we cover the presos, the judging, and the victors. 

How does your company drive change—and how do you *wish* yours would? Let us know in the comments below.

—Ken Grobe, Ask.com