death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. and when it does come, we no longer exist

Quote a la Epicurus, from this wonderful answer on Quora.

I was at Hack@Brown this weekend, which I can’t recommend enough (we also won best mobile app! stay tuned for whether or not this becomes a full project :)). I haven’t been to as many hackathons as I’d like, but from my limited sample, I think this one was really unique and intelligent in its design (as well as just general good attention to detail in the form of branded napkins, quality of volunteers, sleeping rooms, toiletries in bathrooms, tea bag sleeves with tea puns like “chai-fi”, “t++”, and “<h-tee-ml>”).

The hackathon’s philosophy is captured in a recent tweet of theirs — “everyone at a hackathon is a winner, simply because they’re either learning or teaching.”

With this philosophy, they set out to design a competition focused on the process rather than the winnings. The resulting environment meant that people were more willing to build on unfamiliar technologies such as the Oculus Rift, Microsoft’s Kinect, the Myo armband, Spark Core, Unity, etc. The amount of learning was thus made even more immense in a mere 23 hours of work.

One of the key things Hack@Brown did to propel this ethos is in how they allocated their spending. The team reportedly brought in a total of $90K of funding, of which the vast majority went to running the hackathon — basically, making the process amazing for every participant. A very, very small amount (if any!) went to the final prizes for winners.

Having run a few college competitions, I know this is not the norm. A majority of the sponsorship usually goes to the winnings in hopes of attracting really talented teams to compete.

Instead, Hack@Brown viewed every competitor as a talented individual and gave them the safe space and the countless chocolate-covered strawberries and customized Build-a-Bears to enjoy the process. Many times through the night, I heard teams say things like “man, we already won with all this free stuff we’re getting.”

They also made sure there was a 1:7 mentor:participant ratio — and it was a pretty stacked set of 50+ mentors, many of whom were also actively recruiting talent. Knowing there’s a readily accessible safety net also made the participants push themselves out of their comfort zones.

This is really interesting from an organizational design standpoint. The second point is already very often discussed — how do you create a safe environment for employees to take risks — so I won’t belabor it. But the first point is a bit more nuanced and interesting — how do you make the process of working at your company more enjoyable than the rewards of working at your company? How do you create an environment where people aren’t just there to win the next promotion or raise?

It reminds me of a lunch we had with our LEAD class professor from last semester where he breaks down how companies attract and retain talent. There are 3 things that attract talent — the prestige of the company, the inspiration of the vision, and the compensation (graded on fairness rather than absolute quantity). Then, there are 3 things that keep talent — the quality of their peers, their ability to develop personally and professionally in the company, and the work/life balance. And what sits at the middle of these two sets of qualities and helps both attract and retain employees? The manager.

So what levers do we pull to make the process more enjoyable? Making sure the quality of employees’ peers remain high (popularized by the famous Reed Hastings deck on culture and responsibility at Netflix), making sure there’s work/life balance, and making sure employees get to develop. Oh and small niceties do matter — of the free meals, snacks, unlimited office supplies variety…but they really do pale in comparison to the three above.

And I guess at the center of everything, you, the CEO, are a manager of managers.

death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. and when it does come, we no longer exist