Here at Virtru, we find ourselves at the midway point through a very unique and challenging year that is 2020. Any other year, we would gather all of our employees near and far into the DC office for a mid-year celebration, and typically a Washington Nationals game. Knowing that this wouldn’t be possible in today’s environment, we asked ourselves, how can we get our organization together for a fun, creative, and productive team experience? Our answer was what we called Innovation Week.
In developing Innovation Week, we took our experience from the 2018 and 2019 Hackathons and expanded that to be a more inclusive week of team-building exercises, innovative ideas, and presentations that would pull the organization together, even though we all can’t be in the same place. Below, you’ll find details on some of the events and how the week worked and in the coming weeks, we’ll post more detailed overviews of some of these projects on our technical blog.
What Made Innovation Week Different than Past Hackathons?
In years past, we always encouraged the whole company to participate in our annual Hackathon but didn’t always get the participation we hoped for. Team members throughout the company have always enjoyed the presentations at the end of the event, but we really wanted to encourage employees to work with others in different departments, and people they don’t necessarily get to work with on a regular basis. With this in mind, we made some changes to encourage participation from all teams and departments, not just Engineering.
We found that non-engineers could be intimidated by the name, Hackathon, so the first step was to take Hackathon out of the title of the event. So we decided to name the week Innovation Week and to really stress in our communication that this was a company event, that everyone was encouraged to participate in. Secondly, we added a No Code award, for an innovative project which didn’t require code. We ended up with eight no-code submissions, including ideas like a corporate Values Refresh and DE&I Survey, Employee Swag, and improved sales gifs.
We also made some slight adjustments to the format of the event. Historically we had only internal judges, usually Executives from the different departments. This year, we invited two external judges, who are top executives at other companies and advisors to Virtru, to participate. Our guest judges, Banjot Chanana, Product Management at Google Cloud, and Todd Rovak, Managing Partner and CEO at Fahrenheit-212, were able to attend all meetings, share insights on what they have done throughout their careers, and also give encouraging words to the excitement and participation around the event.
We also expanded the timeline for the event. In years past we had one full day of work, between the pitch meeting/team formation and demos. But this time, we expanded to two days for the teams to work, due to feedback from the team. Plus with more time, the team can get much further on their ideas.
Being that we could only do this remotely, we had to skip a lot of face to face meetings, happy hours, and dinners. So we held a couple of Virtual happy hours to socialize with coworkers, and even used an application that sent pizza to each of our employees at the same time so that we could enjoy a virtual meal together and catch up.
Last but certainly not least, we kicked off Innovation Week with guest speaker, Dr. Omékongo Dibinga, who spoke on the subject of courageous conversations and provided employees with insights and tools to have tough conversations and be more inclusive communicators. Following Dr. Dibinga’s session, employees were also invited to join a webinar on compassionate and effective communication. Introducing the Virtru team to new, diverse, expert voices created space for the team to grow, beyond just working on innovative projects together.
This Year’s Winners
We had 29 submissions this year, on a variety of topics, with 23 ideas that made it to the Demo Day. Like last year, we had quite a few technical submissions taking advantage of our Virtru SDK, but we also had a strong showing for No Code submissions.
We have found that, for our team size, having four awards works really well to keep the teams competitive without watering down the achievement. The panel of judges, consisting of cross-functional leaders in our organization plus our two guest judges, vote on the Innovation Award and the Customer-Centric Award, and the other two awards, No-Code and Engineering Impact, are open to a survey. The explanations of each award are below.
Innovation Award – The judges should pick the solution they think is the most InnoVative oVerall, including business potential, “Wow” factor, forward-thinking, creative, and original (no-coding required!).
Customer-Centric Award – The judges should pick the solution that will have the greatest impact on our customer base including great UX, usefulness, and viability.
No-Code Award – Everyone should pick their favorite solution that did not require code; this could be a process change, documentation, or something totally unique.
Engineering Impact Award – Everyone should pick the solution that will have the greatest impact for the engineers and the engineering process.
And the winners are…
Innovation Award – Integration With Google Docs Text Editor and Automatic Redaction w/CAPCO Control Markings
Runner up – E2E Encrypted Video Conferencing
Customer-Centric Award – Secure Compose Button
Runner up – Virtru Customer Enablement Toolkit
No-Code Award – Customer Branding Made Easy
Runner up – DE&I Transparency at Virtru
Engineering Impact Award – Let’s TDF some RPI Video
Runner up – Virtru On-Prem Gateway in Google K8s Engine
A Remote Event Isn’t So Bad Afterall
The biggest take-away from this year’s event was that even though face to face is the best, you can still have a strong event remotely, especially when committed to making this event inclusive and welcoming for all team members. We had thoughtful and impactful initiatives come out of every department at Virtru and seeing Engineers participate in projects with Marketing, Sales and other departments was, to put it simply, really cool.
This was our third Hackathon event, and I would argue our most successful one. Even with the challenges of 2020, we were able to adapt and continue to make this event a company favorite. We were fortunate to have buy-in from the Executive team, and a small task force, made up of members from each department and tasked with aiding in the planning process, helped to ensure that everyone felt empowered to participate.
At this point, we don’t know what will happen next in the world, but we are hoping to have our usual end-of-the-year Hackathon, and we know if we can’t do it in person, we can still have an awesome and engaging remote event. And of course, we are keeping our fingers crossed that we can safely gather in person as a team in the near future!