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Chime Engineers: 2023 Hackathon Recap

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Over 300 Chimers recently got together, in-person and virtually, to participate in our 2023 hackathon. Chime hackathons are intended as an opportunity to switch gears and work outside the constraints of day-to-day expectations and projects across Chime. “We wanted folks to use the Hackathon time to work with people they hadn’t worked with before,” explains Rahul Gupta (he/him/his), a Senior Engineering Manager whose Engineering Operations team facilitates events like the hackathon. “We hoped that by carving out this time, Chimers would innovate and experiment with new technologies and techniques.”

From the outset of the hackathon, we were clear on our goals and non-goals. We encouraged everyone to focus on Chime’s members somehow — our theme was “The Year of the Member” — but something we weren’t necessarily aiming for was that projects be production-ready. “Nobody was expected to have production-ready work by the end of the week — our focus was really on Chimers connecting with each other, learning and building without constraints,” Rahul says.

As a secondary goal, we hope to make it easier for great ideas to get onto roadmaps and in front of Chime’s members as soon as possible. “To do that, we created awards categories based around key challenges we hope to solve for, like ‘Friction-Free Peace of Mind’ and ‘Financial Literacy for the People,’” explains Shannon Jackson (she/her/hers), a Chime Engineering Manager. “With the hackathon in our rearview mirror, we’re working with leadership on which projects will best serve our members — and finding ways to get them built for real.”

The hackathon, in a nutshell:

To hack or not to hack: Why we hold hackathons

At Chime, we have many reasons for holding hackathons:

To find the next big thing for our business.

The next innovation that could catapult Chime into its next growth phase could come from anywhere. Hackathons give the people who know our members and our product best the opportunity to tell us what that next big thing could be. With our focus on “The Year of the Member,” Chimers focused on projects that directly and indirectly impacted our members.

To build a culture of experimentation.

Hackathons promote a culture of learning, collaboration, and trying cool new things. They also give everyone a chance to unwind and connect outside of our day to day.

“There’s almost a summer camp energy during Hackathon week that’s really fun to be around,” says Shannon.

To improve productivity.

It may seem counterintuitive that taking a break from daily work for a week will help us be more productive. Still, some of the hackathon projects were specifically focused on internal tools and processes that needed to be improved. Plus, many Chimers reported feeling invigorated after the hackathon — always a good thing for getting stuff done.

And while many hackathons are hosted overnight or 24 hours a day for multiple days, we didn’t want that atmosphere. To help Chimers feel able to participate in whichever way they showed up (in-person or remotely), we created space for people to work 3 full working days on their hackathon projects during the week, even ending on Friday morning, so people didn’t feel compelled to work over the weekend. “A 24-hour hackathon is far less inclusive, considering things like personal life, physical health, emotional strain… Spreading it out over 3-full days during working hours makes it more sustainable and accessible,” explains Rahul.

We also wanted to eliminate any kind of cut-throat competition or rhetoric. We wanted to create a hackathon experience that was manageable, positive, and accessible to every Chimer who wished to participate.

Hackathons at Chime: A history

“I love the platform hackathons give Chimers of all levels to pitch product and technical ideas to the entire company. It’s a rush getting to move fast, be creative, and throw spaghetti at the wall. Since we get to self-organize, it also lets us work with Chimers across orgs that we would normally never interact with. I wish Chime had a permanent hackathon team that could prototype out of the box ideas year round.

As one of this year’s hackathon winners, we were really proud of what we built, but were all really surprised by the win. Hearing the reactions from the judges was super rewarding, and we still hope that this idea can make it to production in the future.”

— Beverly Leu, Senior Software Engineer

The decision to go distributed

In both 2022 and 2023, we took the decision of whether to run our hackathon in person or distributed very seriously. If we held the hackathons in person, they had to be remote-friendly to include all. Ultimately, in 2022 we decided to run our hackathon as a fully distributed event, and in 2023, we went hybrid.

Going hybrid meant holding both in-office and remote activities, as well as allowing any remote Chimers to fly into their office for the week. “About sixty Chimers took us up on that, many of whom had never been into the offices before,” Shannon says. And since the event was hybrid, the planning team reduced Slack noise from the previous year so that folks interacting in person wouldn’t get constant pings. For those who participated 100% remotely, special snack boxes and pizza were sent to their house, and they enjoyed a live music event featuring Nick Trikakis over Zoom.

The value of buy-in for a successful event

We believe that executive buy-in is critical for most things that are important to an organization — and hackathons are no exception. “Our CTO, James Barrese, was the champion of our 2022 hackathon, but once leadership saw the joy, engagement, innovation, and cool stuff that came out of the hackathon, they were all so excited for us to keep doing them,” Shannon says. “Hackathons are an investment both in our people and our growth as an organization.”

With executive leaders on board for our 2023 hackathon, we made a huge effort to share their excitement with Chimers to build morale, motivate folks, and make the space provided for their creativity feel valued and valuable. Leaders contributed awards categories, served as judges, and made videos to get people hyped, and our co-founders picked the overall winners. “They actually loved so many projects that they picked TWO overall winners, one that was member-facing and one that improved an internal process,” explains Rahul.

Executive participation as judges provided high-level visibility into hackathon projects and generated buy-in on getting them onto roadmaps. Since the hackathon, when leadership discusses ways to support our members, the exec judges can share, “there’s a hackathon project for that!”

Embracing cross-functional strengths

For the first time, we designated a Design Idea Week before the hackathon for planning and designing. The week gave Chimers from cross-functional teams outside of Engineering the time and space to develop thoughtful, beautiful designs — instead of rushing during the three-day event.

“Over the course of my career, there’s one thing I’ve seen that is required to build truly great products. Strong bonds, fueled by shared passion create that necessary drive and understanding to do stuff that the whole team is proud of.

With this year’s Hackathon, it wasn’t just about dedicating time to build together but creating the space to find others who care about the same things you do. When Designers and Engineers partnered on shared passion projects, they found new comfort and allowed better solutions to surface. This inclusive way of working led to real change in our product roadmap because of the work done showed what was possible.”

— Jon Fulton, Design Manager

The event also included the User Research team, whose researchers put together research packets tied to each award category. These provided hackathon participants with visibility into the needs of our members and helped them focus on building projects that could truly impact our members.

“Hackathons can often be seen as engineering-only, but opening our most recent event up to other teams and embracing the strengths of cross-functional teams really enriched the experience and the outcomes,” Shannon says.

Discovering connections, cultural alignment, and a love of collaboration

In two consecutive years of hosting hackathons, we’ve discovered a deep cultural alignment across Chime that we otherwise might not have known existed. By its nature, hackathons help Chimers connect and work with and across teams and individuals with whom they otherwise wouldn’t collaborate. We’ve consistently received feedback from everyone that Chime’s strong cultural values lend themselves to an instant sense of connection, trust, safety, and alignment for Chimers, new and old.

“Between the cross-team connections, learning and development opportunities, and infectious enthusiasm for prototyping audacious dreams into products, the hackathon already paid for itself. The icing on the cake is that we’re getting new creative ideas on the roadmap and already shipping hackathon projects just months later!”

— Stefanie Lynch, Senior Engineering Manager

We’re walking away from our 2023 hackathon with several key takeaways:

1. By making it easier to get things onto our roadmaps, Chimers and leadership feel energized to hack.
2. Bringing in our remote and cross-functional teammates really increased connectedness, collaboration, and the outcomes of the hackathon.
3. Giving Chimers the space to work on whatever projects they felt inspired by led to greater productivity, creativity, and connection across the company.

We’re excited to see all of the hackathon projects that get shipped following this hackathon and can’t wait for the next one!