They say April Showers bring May Flowers, but did you also know that January Seeding keeps the Innovation Engine Speeding?

Wow, rhyming can be painful sometimes and I’m once again reminded that I should stick to engineering. It’s now June and as I pass by all the wildflowers growing here in Texas I appreciate the chaotic but at the same time coherent display of colors – the result of random seeds that have grown to be part of the cityscape.

…and then the engineer in me pops up to remind me that innovation sometimes follows a similar process. Great ideas grow from small seeds, but you rarely know which one is going to succeed. One way to improve the innovation odds is to sow as many seeds as possible.

We plant our innovation seeds in January. A New Year and fresh starts come along with cold, dark days and post-Christmas bills to pay. We all return to work from the holidays and it can be a struggle to get back into the swing of things. Luckily, the natural business cycle tends to create a little bit of R&D breathing space in the first quarter of the year, so it’s a great time to step back and inject a small dose of energy into our innovation engine: the ADVA Hackathons are happening again. 

This time we kicked off the innovation events at our R&D site in Gdynia, Poland and followed up with our first stateside Hackathon at our Atlanta site.

Having recently moved in to our brand new office space in Gdynia, facilitating this year’s hacking extravaganza was easier than in the past. Big conference rooms, lots of lab space, caffeine, refreshments and snacks on hand: everything a hacker could want.

This year we had nine teams participate in the Gdynia hackathon, with some people even traveling from Germany and the UK to join the fun. There were people from IT, R&D, customer support and services all putting their heads together, and at the end of the 48 hours we saw some outstanding results. Our hackathons are starting to reflect what’s going on in our high-tech industry, with more open-source and even consumer hardware being used to improve our products. New ideas and technology are making their way into ADVA both through our mainline development as well as through side-roads like hackathons. What really proves the value of these innovation events is that today, just a few months later, we hear things like “well you know … this feature started as an idea in our hackathon.”

The Hackathon Marketplace

Our Atlanta hackathon also featured nine hack teams with members drawn from various groups. Since most of the participants did not have much experience with hackathons, the team decided to try something new and introduced the “Hackathon Marketplace.” A day before the hackathon, we got together in a big room and posted some initial hack ideas on the wall. People could then mingle and talk about each idea and form teams on the spot by writing their name right next to the hack idea description. It seemed to work well so this is something we are adding to the ADVA hackathon recipe book.

Ready … Set … Donuts!

It’s a lot easier to get started with donuts and coffee in the morning. So, of course, that’s exactly what we did. 

Hackers at Work

The kickoff event on day 1 went smoothly thanks to having prepared topics ahead of time. All the hack teams had formed and set out to beat the 48-hour deadline.

The Wrap-Up Demo Event

The closing ceremony featured running demos of prototypes with absolutely no duct tape or power point slides in sight. Working code rules in a hackathon and we saw some really innovative and surprising ideas come to life! From authenticating via consumer product hardware keys, to mobile applications and even development environment enhancements, there was something for everyone to relate to, and a few things that will grow into next-gen product enhancements.

Choosing the best hack is really difficult so we have another recipe in our hackathon handbook: everyone (including hackers and spectators) gets one vote and we spend five minutes on a simple voting round. We post all the hackathon ideas on a wall, and we each get to put a mark next to the one we liked the best. It’s fair, informal and everyone gets to participate in the voting. We award small prizes for the top three teams – although everyone knows it’s always the bragging rights that really matter. 

Hack Team #2 won this year with their prototype of a graphical display of auto-discovered network information. Very useful!

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Starting the year off with a Hackathon really revs the Innovation Engine and gets everyone ready for a new year of product development challenges. This year, two days of hacking at two sites resulted in 18 new prototypes and improvements. Those seed investments continue to pay off dividends every day for months afterwards. One important benefit has also become clear to us: cross-organizational teams that form for the purpose of the hackathon retain their relationships long after the event. It makes working together through the rest of the year easier because you have been working intensively and solved problems together, and have a common achievement. I don’t think you can really put a price on that: growing features and growing teams at the same time.

It just goes to show: slack time is not expensive or unproductive; facilitated properly it’s the lubricant that ensures that the product development machine runs smoothly.