Dash to the Future—Organizing Dashlane’s First Online Hackathon
This is a story of how we ran the Dackathon, Dashlane's first online hackathon, during the Covid-19 lockdown, written from the perspective of a Paris based Talent team member who was in the organizing team and ended up jumping in a hackathon project herself. Spoiler, the story ends well and celebrates cross-functional teamwork and resilience.
It came like a soaring wave, which, if you had squinted and stared at the horizon, you would have realized, was soon going to sweep over us. A shift from what we knew to be the normal state of affairs into a crisis unlike anything we had experienced before. It would soon lead to our three Dashlane offices closing completely for an undefined period of time—sweeping our work into our homes, onto our kitchen tables, and amidst our kids' and spouses' lives.
We, the organizers of this spring's hackathon, knew we were up against a challenge. The Dashlane team had had to shift quickly to working from home and were still adjusting to the new situation. Yet, we wanted to keep our working culture as intact as possible, and still organize the hackathon, a 2-day event where Dashlaners take a break from their normal work and build teams to brainstorm and prototype innovative ideas that are later demoed to the entire company. And so we had to face the new reality: If we wanted to organize the hackathon this spring, it would very likely have to be done fully online. We decided it was worth the shot. We were prepared to run this event virtually, but it would remain to be seen if the rest of the team would get on board with the idea.
What is more, we wanted to make it accessible to anyone at Dashlane: to increase the number of first-time joiners and encourage everyone and anyone, regardless of department or role, to consider joining. We also wanted to see Dashlaners create teams across our locations (Paris, New York and Lisbon). With everyone now joining remotely, physical location seemed to have less significance, even if time zones would still be a factor.
Go big and loud
To answer the challenge, we realized we needed communication that stood out and had a clear message, and we would need to start evangelizing early. Luckily, we had chosen a date late enough in the spring to be able to do this. We were a nice mix of experienced hackathon organizers and first-timers with some new ideas to bring to the table. We also had the essential skills in the core organizing team to enable us to move forward as an autonomous entity—a bit like a mission team! For example, we had a developer with a design background, who executed a compelling visual theme for our promotional materials, including a logo, and of course, a Slack emoji. We also introduced Dashnews, an online magazine that we used to share information about the event.
After some fun brainstorming, we had it: Our theme would be Dash to the Future. Inspired by the dystopic situation we were all collectively living across the three countries, we decided to use imagery from science fiction movies, and our call-to-action would be: Join us, escape the dystopia, and fight for a better future for ourselves, our users, and our product. After all, it is at the moment of crisis that innovation is needed the most. We also felt like we wanted to give the hackathon a bit of a new twist. We were doing things differently this year anyway, so we might as well launch a new name for the event too—and so the event became the Dackathon.
Weeks passed, and the organizing team continued meeting, planning, and releasing issues of Dashnews, in anticipation of the D-day and curious to see how many Dashlaners would join. By the start of the event we had 23 teams and one out of every 3 Dashlaners (over 110 of us) from the three locations joined, including a lot of first-timers, and people from almost all departments. Even one new Dashlaner signed up who had onboarded with us 100% remotely due to the lockdown.
By the end of the second Dackathon day Paris-time, we had the demo session on Zoom, where around three quarters of all Dashlaners watched the 2-minute videos created by the Dackathon teams to showcase the projects they had worked on. We then voted for the best ones, choosing winners in the following categories: Most Business Value, Most Creative, and Most Impressive Technology. By selecting several categories, we wanted to highlight different kinds of projects, and further encourage variety. We also added a fourth category, The Exec Team's Choice.
I watched the demo session with adrenaline-filled veins—not only as an organizer, witnessing all the work coming together, and happily observing the engagement of Dashlaners—but also, as a Dackathon participant in competition mode, excited to see the work I had been contributing to my project during those intense two days presented.
Like many, I had also waited until the last minute to join a team, but eventually I decided that organizing wasn't enough, I wanted to live through the event as a participant—after all, dogfooding (using a product or service oneself in order to test it) is important, no matter what you're building. I had already voted for several project ideas on our product board, but one of them resonated with me particularly, because it was at the sweet spot of combining our product and an internal process (for reporting bugs). I've barely touched code in my life, but I have worked on processes and communications for years, and have a long-lasting interest in UX. With this project, I felt I was able to apply that experience, as well as continue to learn about our product.
The best thing about the Dackathon for me was being part of a short, fast-paced creation process with experts from different fields who I normally don't work with. Us participants built concepts and mockups, and practiced quick decision-making, user research and prototyping. Demoing the project to the company, presenting a problem and the team's solution for it—for someone who doesn't normally work directly with the product, this was a particularly unique experience.
Breaking silos and taking ownership
Striving for more inclusive hackathons wasn't anything new —just check out the blog article by our CTO. But as Frédéric writes, this is a long-term project. Innovation lives in the intersections, and breaking silos is crucial for smooth communication and thus efficient teamwork. It’s all the more important for our growing, internationally distributed team, and with the rising trend of working from home. Organizing inclusive hackathons helps us with this goal, even if it is the everyday communication and work that will have the biggest impact in the long run.
And what does this mean on an individual level? We are rather thorough when selecting new Dashlaners, so once you do join us, we know you to have a lot to contribute and we welcome you to do it. And not just in terms of what has been written in your job description. We are all diverse beings with our unique set of skills, past experiences, and passions—all valuable assets for work and more. The message you'll hear time and time again is: Take ownership, communicate with others about what you're doing, and bring your own input to our company culture and the work we are here to do.
At the time of writing this, all three countries we work in are in the process of lifting restrictions on physical distancing, and Dashlane is executing its plan to slowly reopen the offices for optional use. It's been a hard period for many, if not all of us. Yet we have shown resilience and strength as a team, and the Dackathon was only one of the many team wins during this time. However, it was perhaps the one that brought the most Dashlaners together, in one form or another. As for the projects the teams worked on, they will continue to live through the innovative and fun videos we created, with some of them going way beyond that and eventually becoming new features, UX improvements, and internal tools and processes. Let's dash to the future to see all that come to life!
Movie references: The Back to the Future and Avengers movies series