3 Takeaways From Running a Remote-Friendly HackWeek During the COVID-19 Pandemic
This piece is co-authored by: Derek Ralston, Agile Coach, and Charlotte Sarfati, Technical Support Engineer. Charlotte and Derek worked together on PagerDuty’s cross-functional HackWeek committee.
Unprecedented times have the power to inspire great innovation. After 11+ years of monthly HackDays, PagerDuty shifted to a biannual organization-wide HackWeek in order to:
- Drive innovation, collaboration, and learning
- Allow for high-impact, bigger ideas
- Discuss accelerating development of solutions that suddenly feel more important than ever (stay tuned for more details!)
We dreamed a bigger dream—and succeeded. In this blog post, we’ll share three key takeaways from hosting a fully remote HackWeek event. These insights can be helpful for any organization planning a HackWeek event, including those in the midst of transitioning into a fully remote workforce.
HackWeek in the Time of COVID-19
As the HackWeek committee embarked on this journey to pivot to a new way of hacking, an unexpected factor came into play late into the planning stage: the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than postponing the event, we felt this was the perfect opportunity to truly embody the ethos of HackWeek. How could we intentionally curate a fully remote, inclusive space that allows people to thrive and do their best work, with a #NoLimits mindset, in the comfort of their own homes?
Fortuitously, HackWeek became the perfect antidote to the stress and change that impacted us all due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was evident due to some of the post-HackWeek survey responses:
“A week to work on a moonshot was great! Every week should be HackWeek.”
“This has been such a nice break from my COVID-19-consumed mind. I feel like this HackWeek couldn’t have come at a better time.”
“This last week and day of demos has been some of the most fun I’ve had at work in years.”
Our Key Takeaways
1. Our mandatory work-from-home policy made HackWeek location-independent.
PagerDuty already operates globally, but we were planning on hosting HackWeek events (e.g., kickoff and presentations) in our San Francisco, Toronto, and Atlanta offices with a shared Zoom link to connect with other locations and remote folks. When COVID-19 happened and WFH became mandatory, that all changed.
Because of this, we reworked our HackWeek events altogether. To start, we provisioned a Trello board where folks could post their project ideas, show interest by upvoting or joining Trello cards, and add comments asynchronously. We then followed up with an optional “Pitchfest” session to keep the momentum going leading up to Hackweek, where they could advertise their ideas and recruit teammates. Additionally, instead of holding a kickoff on the first day of HackWeek (which would’ve interrupted the day for those on the East Coast), our executive sponsor instead sent out an email to all participants. This way, teams could stay fresh and excited about the HackWeek to come as well as stay informed about the logistics for the week.
HackWeek teams were already distributed across offices and remote locations, so when WFH became mandatory, it made communicating over Zoom and Slack feel natural. In some ways, it made the event more inclusive to team members throughout the offices and to our already-remote employees. Because of this new remote reality and the absence of in-office conversations between team meetings, all event communications were centralized.
2. HackWeek was an entire week of just hacking.
For the most part, we left teams alone during HackWeek to focus on their hack in the following ways:
- No HackWeek-related meetings were scheduled
- Teams planned for reduced capacity
- On call remained the first priority for incidents requiring a major incident response, but stakeholder questions were fielded by each team’s Product Manager and Engineering Manager when possible
The teams still met with each other, but they were given a week of distraction-free time to focus on their hack. One participant commented, “It was a breath of fresh air to be free of our process for a week.”
One structural element that proved useful was Async Daily Standups: Each morning of HackWeek, teams provided an update in our #hackweek Slack channel that included:
- What they were tackling that day
- Areas they could use help on
- A small win to share
These updates proved to be beneficial in terms of keeping teams energized and accountable to their HackWeek goals. Additionally, it was an avenue to cheer each other on as we overcame hurdles throughout the week. One participant mentioned, “I love that we have these updates. HackWeek in public >>> HackWeek in secret!).”
3. Presentations went smoother than ever before.
The magic truly came alive during HackWeek presentations. In-office logistics became a thing of the past. Participants no longer had to walk up to the podium and plug in their computers (fingers crossed that it would be compatible with the AV equipment provided) to present. Instead, teams were able to seamlessly transition with a simple click of the “share screen” button in Zoom.
As one PagerDuty employee commented, “The super smooth transitions/handovers between teams were awesome! Not sure if this is just great collaboration or someone in the background making it so smooth—either way, I loved it.” The beautiful orchestration was all thanks to a fully remote event that was inclusive to all.
Another pleasant surprise was the ability to tangibly capture (and record) real-time reactions from those who tuned in via Zoom’s live chat feature. Viewers could unabashedly share their “Wow!” reactions without interrupting the presenter. These moments were shared with all attendees, not just with those we would sit next to if hosted in an office space. The best part? We captured all these reactions when we recorded the presentations for historical purposes, so that anyone can relive those magical, authentic moments over and over again. I myself have already re-watched it over a dozen times, to the chagrin of my manager.
Reflecting on the Results
After completing a fully remote HackWeek, how do the stats line up?
The first iteration of HackWeek generated:
- Participation from 73 teams across PagerDuty, with 50 total presentations
- A +1,238% increase in participation compared to previous monthly Hackdays (+985% from Engineering)
- Participation from new departments, notably Sales, Marketing, and Community teams
- Achievement of up to 8 cross-functional members per team (a huge spike from the previous highest makeup of 2)
The lasting impact of HackWeek, one month later, is still seen today. The Product Development leadership team has inventoried, scoped, and followed up with HackWeek teams in order to gauge how we can ship these into production for all customers to enjoy. Additionally, HackWeek is still getting mentioned during Sprint Reviews and “Ask Me Anything” chats with executive leadership.
As we close out this new chapter in PagerDuty’s HackWeek history, these key learnings will be transferred over the next iteration of HackWeek. The glorious success of an all-remote event—partly due to a meeting-less week, async standups, and remote presentations—will forever re-shape the way we think about what it means to be innovative, collaborative, and in an “always-learning” mindset. And wherever we’re working from when the next HackWeek rolls along, we know we’ll continue finding new ways to innovate, collaborate, and #RunTogether.
How are you currently running HackWeek events during COVID-19? What are some of those outcomes and learnings from transitioning to a remote-friendly format? We’d love to hear from you at https://community.pagerduty.com/forum.