3 Things a Company Hackathon Can Teach You


Last week I travelled to Mexico with 40 of my Auth0 colleagues and participated in, among other things, a company Hackathon. It was my first — here’s what I learned and you could too.


Ahem. Settle down, it’s not what you think, let me explain. Auth0 has a distributed workforce — our 40 or so staff work across 4 continents and while we have all the modern technology tools you’d expect to keep us productive, many of us have never actually met in person. Yet after arriving in Playa del Carmen and promptly launching in to the Hackathon (thanks to torrential rain we cancelled our planned “fun day”. The header picture shows some of our guys ignoring torrential rain and still swimming at the beach!) it was remarkable to see the chemistry playing out.

When faced with a tough technology challenge to be solved the room was abuzz. People who’d never met in person were instantly engaged in deep discussion, trading ideas on flip charts, huddling together to share content on their Mac screens. We were a team glued together by passion: our passion for what it is we do at Auth0; Our passion for technology; Our passion for solving problems.

Passion has to be the most important attribute if you’re looking to build a successful distributed team. It’s the glue that sticks a team together despite the challenges of distance, timezones and, at times, isolation. The Hackathon proves to be a great device to keep that fire stoked or at least discover if it’s even burning. It’s almost a litmus test for passion in your business.

The Moment of Truth: The passion from the team was evident at the final “reveal”


Our Hackathon challenge was to build a secure remote control lock from concept to a “faux” market launch. We commenced with a list of 12 project groups which needed to be fulfilled by people in the room. Everything from industrial engineering to mobile app development to a marketing strategy. “Now GO” were the instructions. And people did…they just went. They went and did the thing that they knew they were best at.

Now, at many companies the first 3 hours of this task would have been spent working out groups, team leaders, who was going to be the scribe, who was going to report back to the groups, who was going to…zzzzzzzz. You get the point. There was none of that. The subtext was this: Do whatever it is you are excited about doing.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

This is one of my favourite quotes and I first heard it only last year at a leadership course (the quote is from Howard Thurman, a 20th century educator and US civil rights leader). It’s powerful to see people do what they want, not what they’ve been told to do. Give it a shot, see who comes alive in your business.


…but chances are you’re smarter at something than someone else. And the Hackathon is a great opportunity to find out what it is. I’m blown away by the amount of talent at Auth0. There are some seriously smart guys and girls in our team. In fact, for just a minute, I wondered whether there was anything I could contribute to the Hackathon in the presence of this bunch of geniuses. But there was. There is something — several things — we are all smarter at that someone else.

Maybe you can’t code your way out of a paper bag (that’s me) but you’re a natural problem solver. You’re a visionary marketer but you’re design skills are lacklustre. You’re a wordsmith but a nervous speaker. Finding strengths in others that help you plus recognising where you add value to others accelerates the success of a team. The pressure cooker environment of a hackathon is a great way to make this happen.

Don’t think Hackathons are just for geeks. Any company can have a Hackathon and learn some important lessons. Regardless of whether you’re an accountant, a boat charter company or a restaurant — put all your staff in a room together, write a relevant challenge on a whiteboard, set a time limit and say “now go”. You just might be amazed at what happens.

At Auth0, I’ve been helping technology solution providers find new opportunities to provide great customer solutions and drive new revenue opportunities in the ever evolving security, identity and access management space. Connect and send me a message if you want to come onboard, and follow the Auth0 Partner page on LinkedIn.

Posted in Thought & Opinion

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