Hackathons at bol.com

This article was originally published on the bol.com blog, and is also available on Medium and LinkedIn.

"You hack it, you love it, you run it" is printed on a big sign above the canteen at bol.com's office in Utrecht. It's time for the hackathon, which is held three times a year.

Today, about 90 engineers are completely free to decide what to work on. "When you sign up for the hackathon, you mention what you're planning to do so you can form a team, but no manager has to approve it," says Maarten Dirkse, who started organizing the hackathons three years ago.

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The hackers are all relieved from their duties; nobody will bother them today with regular work. The hackathon starts at 09:00 and lasts until 20:00. Lunch and pizzas are arranged, and at 17:00 the bar opens (just like every Friday).

"It's a really fun event in which you can build anything you've always wanted to build, but couldn't find the time for. It doesn't necessarily needs to be something useful for bol.com, although we do take suggestions from the business." Maarten continues. "People tackle a problem that bothers or motivates them. My favorite is an internal dashboard that shows beautiful statistics on today's revenue. It also plots new customer orders real-time on a map of Holland."

 

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Hacker Mary Gouseti is a big fan of the hackathons: "it's a great way to learn new skills and experiment with new technology. It's also nice to work together with engineers from other teams that you normally don't work with. Everybody helps each other out. My favorite project is the "Translate to English" button, which allows non-Dutch speakers like me to browse bol.com in English."

"Several projects resulted in visible improvements and innovations for our website or mobile app. But even if an initiative can't directly be translated into business value, it does inspire and motivate the engineers, which is just as valuable" says Menno Vis, IT Director Software Development. 

"After the hackathon, we organize an award ceremony for which we invite the whole company. The hackers present their results in a 3-minute pitch. We have prizes for the coolest project, the project which has the most value for bol.com and for the project which is the most 'out of the box' or funny. Real working demos usually score more points than PowerPoint slides" Menno continues.

Another noteworthy event is the yearly "polish night". During this event, about 500 colleagues voluntarily work until late at night to get the site ready for the holiday season. They clean up a whole bunch of glitches in the product content to improve the shopping experience. Of course, music and drinks are provided.

The hackathon is just one of the things that defines bol.com's engineering culture. Management supports and encourages bottom-up initiatives and regularly asks employees to pitch ideas for new projects. Menno: "our philosophy for sustaining a high performing IT department is quite simple. Get the right people on board and give them the right assignment. Encourage them to take ownership and ensure autonomy at the lowest level in the organization. Provide freedom within a framework, high autonomy and high alignment. Just like our services: loosely coupled but also highly cohesive!"

Hackathons are a great way to inspire innovation and motivation by reinforcing autonomy, mastery and purpose. Bol.com gets this, just like Facebook, Spotify and Uber who conduct hackathons at regular intervals.