A hackathon’s value proposition is generally one of innovation. Companies see these events as an investment to come up with new products. However, I recently found out they are also a great way to teach us about existing flaws in our software development processes.
I’ve participated in a handful of coding events before and have come to appreciate hackathons, as a good way to boost camaraderie and do some individual learning. That’s why I got very excited when a few months ago our CTO announced we were going to do ListMinut’s first hackathon. And so, for 3 days in mid-September, our product development team moved to the Belgian coast to design and code an MVP.
Let me first give you a bit of context. ListMinut is growing, and while this is good, it’s also challenging. Just like most other businesses, at first, it was possible to add features fast and easy, but with time the development process became harder and slower and throwing more man-power doesn’t seem to balance the situation. This scenario is very similar to a city whose streets grew organically and were not designed with growth in mind. At some point, the excess in population causes the entire traffic system to collapse. Fortunately for us, software is way more malleable than a city.
To mitigate these growing pains, there are two major changes we are introducing. On the operational side, we are setting agile processes in place to help us work smarter. And on the technical side, we are improving code quality and optimizing performance, while also evaluating architectural changes which can deliver long-term benefits. This is basically why I joined the team.
The main motivation behind the hackathon was to address the latter. What I didn’t expect, was how good the hackathon would be, as a way to surface out any flaws in the way we work. You’ll see, as part of my work during my first four months, I’ve been pushing for (1) shorter-lived feature branches, (2) code reviews, (3) automated testing, and (4) improved code quality. The team has been taking all these changes very positively. I’ll even allow myself to say that they’ve even been somewhat enthusiastic about it, which not only has made my job much easier but is enabling us to rip off the benefits early on.
During the hackathon, without any request from my side, the back-end team didn’t rush in to code like crazy but instead followed each of these 4 principles, which completely made my day. The fact that we did so, allows us to easily incorporate what we built during these 3 days without having to go through a big refactoring or suffering some high maintenance costs later on. This is already a considerable win, but I know we can still improve and the fast-paced rhythm of the hackathon was a great way to put our processes to the test.
For us, it pointed out little communication problems which forced us to do some re-writes and some problems with WIP (work in progress) and bad design which gave us some ugly merge conflicts. These difficulties aren’t new to development teams, as a matter of fact, they are very common but sometimes challenging to see in the busyness of the day to day. So teams adapt and cope with them or worse yet, they start to think of them as myths. The good news is that our industry has been solving these issues for a while now, so we will follow some Lean/Agile advice while also improving our OOP design and iterate until this machine is finely tuned.
I’m quite excited to be working as a part of a team that experiments and isn’t afraid of exposing its issues. I think this is the only way to learn and improve. If you’d also like to expose any issues with your development process, let me recommend that you do a hackathon and follow your existing development process, you might surprise yourself about what you find.