Remote Hackathons: Five Secrets for Success When Going Virtual

Moving an entire company to work from home was a seamless transition for Transfix, thanks to solid collaboration and communication across the organization. We’ve been WFH since March and despite the Groundhog Day-esque feeling of staying in one place, the third quarter quickly came upon us and it only meant one thing: Hackathon time was approaching!

Hackathon is a major part of a startup’s culture and our entire team geeks out over the randomized teams that marry our Tech and Operations team collaborating over a 24-hour period to create nothing short of magic. Each Hackathon is centered around a chosen theme and this time we honed into our superhero powers to create tools, enhancements, and literal hacks designed to make our organization run with even more efficiency.

It’s quite literally one of the most anticipated events of the year but does the transition from in-person to virtual change the success of Hackathon? We’ve got five secrets for success directly from our event organizer, Karina Ruzinov (Senior Software Engineer), mentors, and winners.


Refresh the Way You Connect
An integral part of planning this year’s Hackathon revolved around creating an easy communicative experience to ensure all participants could share their thoughts and learnings. In a normal circumstance, we’d be able to walk up to one another but having our worlds shift in front of a screen meant making sure everyone had a voice at all times. “We gave engineers the ability to ‘virtually brainstorm’, so tools like Freehand and Figma helped tremendously when a whiteboard wasn’t handy. We also focused on having their communication pre-setup. Engineers were able to seamlessly drop into their premade team [Slack] channels and video calls – all that was left up to them was the brainstorming.” 

The detailed efforts surrounding virtual collaboration made the experience “less intimidating”, according to Samanee Mahbub (Product Marketing Manager) who joined Transfix mid-pandemic and volunteered to serve as a mentor to one of the teams. “Given I started my job remotely and never got to interact with the broader company, it was a really unique experience to get to know people outside of my team and see how the tech team thinks about company initiatives and challenges.” Virtualizing a Hackathon also streamlines focus when it comes to brainstorm, as you can creatively layout your screens to have all of your necessary tools and teammates within eyeshot curtailing distractions brought on by in-person environments.


Bring Other Departments In
Historically, Hackathons tend to be siloed within the tech branch of any organization but at Transfix, we broaden our teams to allow for cross-collaboration company-wide. Opening the event to everyone creates the perfect environment for ideation that could revolutionize the way your company operates in one of the fastest ways possible. Cross-collaboration also provides the opportunity to uncover any blindspots teams may have adapted over time that poses challenges or operational woes. 

When planning, Karina expressed a need to ensure that every single participant in a team would be able to contribute. “Because our teams are randomly generated, there were a few instances of some team members feeling the chosen project was over their heads. When a Hackathon is happening virtually, it’s much easier to shy away from participating when feeling overwhelmed than it would be when everybody is sitting in a conference room together.” This is where mentors step in. Each team is armed with a mentor to help guide the process from start to finish and as an event organizer, make sure you empower your mentors with the responsibility of checking in throughout those important 24-hours.


Find Inspiration & Innovation From Within
Oftentimes, companies look externally for inspiration to help take their company to the next level. What makes Transfix unique is we take the perspective of teams who are supporting our customers from the frontlines and use that to better our systems and processes. Our executive team boasts an open-door policy that promotes innovation from within so that we continuously meet the needs, not only of our customers but of the essential contributors of our business.

“One of the biggest challenges in our industry of freight is that the market is very fluid and rates can change drastically week over week,” shares Hackathon mentor Patrick Taylor (Carrier Manager). Because it’s our business to stay ahead of any trends and market changes, creating a hack to empower our Carrier and Account Management teams was an absolute must. It’s what inspired Patrick’s team as the project to focus on and the one that won the competition. “While I am a very competitive person, and I enjoy winning, I think the greatest benefit from a hackathon like this, is all the innovation within Transfix to improve our company. Now it just comes down to implementing these features and tools to help our different teams”. 


Celebrate in a Tangible Way
Creating an interactive environment that allows breeding ground for inspiration can be difficult when you’re working remotely. In fact, our Hackathons have traditionally been fueled by energy drinks and high fructose corn syrup. Not to mention the main event of presentations is where our company gathers, energy is infectious and there are cheers aplenty. It was one of the biggest challenges of creating a lively experience behind a screen.

With the help of our on-site office team, we were able to send trinkets out to all of the participants as a symbol of participation and a way to build momentum. When you’re planning, ensure there’s enough budget for tangible prizes going to first and second place winners and if you really want to create a memorable moment, your participants will love opportunities for meal deliveries and a company-sponsored happy hour to spectate the presentations. 


Go The Extra Mile…Literally
Finding the most productive working environment in COVID-era can be a major hardship. Some team members are dealing with the fortitude of crowded apartments, daytime childcare, or even screen burnout. Some may have even uprooted to another city, state, or country in the search to maximize efforts of 9-5 productivity. Yet, despite location – a virtual Hackathon can be successful no matter where you are in the world. 

Part of this year’s winning team is Sunday Adefila, a Senior Software Engineer, who’s been with Transfix since 2018 working remotely from Nigeria. Sunday beamed, “the moment I realized our team won, I just started bragging to my friends.”