Gather a bunch of smart engineers - put them in an isolated room for 48 hours - sprinkle with some clever ideas - then have them code until they’re exhausted... this is known as the 'textbook' way of doing vanilla hackathons.
Then there’s the 'Ulf' way…
So who is Ulf?
As legend tells, 'Ulf the Magnificent' was a Viking who lived in a small village, close to the northern shores of Estonia, in the year 821 A.D. He had a dream: that he would one day visit the great continent of America! Now, Ulf understood that without a big enough boat he would never be able to cross the perilous seas that separated his home from his dreams. So he sharpened his axe, put on his horny helmet, and made his way into the forest to do some hacking.
After a couple of days of chopping, Ulf brought back enough logs to assemble his vessel. There followed four days and nights of relentless splitting and fitting before, finally, he managed to construct an MVP –a Minimum Viking Product – a heavy, solid-looking transportation device that more closely resembled logs randomly tied together than it did a viable vessel capable of carrying passengers. But, in his mind, the MVP would take him across the treacherous seas, towards his dream.
So he took his newly built craft for its maiden voyage. And it sank. Ulf was devastated. Could his dreams really slip away that quickly? He could not understand why his creation had failed him. He decided to take a short break, build a great hall from the wood left over, and think it over a little.
Then, while he was assembling the last wall of his hall, he suddenly realised the answer - the wood that he had used was denser than water, and thus would not be able to float on its own! He had learned! And he decided to try again with a new design – a hollow boat.
Ulf never made it to America. But his hollow vessel did take him all the way to Scandinavia. He took his axe, and his horny helmet, and travelled to Norway where he finally settled down. Some time later, his great-grandchildren, Erik the Red and Leif Erikson, summoned the spirit and courage of Ulf and had another go at attaining his dream... and the rest is history!
Our Hackathon – the 'Ulf way'
Sitting in the aforementioned great hall, built, according to legend, almost twelve centuries before (the actual number being more like eight), TransferWise’s largest hackathon to date started with the telling of the tale of 'Ulf the Magnificent'. We could have chosen to begin with administrative stuff - picked the ideas, assembled the teams and so on, and started off... but we decided not to.
This approach - bringing out the legend of a fictional character no-one has ever heard of, but whose effort, hope, sorrows, and joys everyone can relate to, suddenly (and somewhat unexpectedly) unleashed a huge unifying power. The energy raised around the room whenever someone yelled “For Ulf!” and the teams started chanting “Aauuugh, Aauuugh, Aaauuuugh!” was not remotely necessary for passing Jenkins’ tests. It was, however, crucial for the understanding that, even though we are split between different sub-teams, we are all in one boat, striving towards achieving the same dream.
The 'textbook' method can be effective, and is definitely less chaotic. It is technically and mechanically a solid way of bringing smart people together to work on hard problems. And it works well – people do get stuff done. But the hidden wisdom of why the 'Ulf' way is much more powerful is not in the times when we are focussed – it lies in the times when we are distracted.
Distractions – good or bad?
When you take 40 people out of their natural habitat [read: the office] into the middle of nowhere, you are doing a great job at removing 80% of the distractions. There is something about being surrounded with nothing but trees, water, and occasional wildlife that makes it very easy for the human mind to release a massive burden of stress and suddenly feel relaxed and concentrated.
Yet, when the group consists of some of the smartest people you’ve ever met, you can be sure that this collective brain activity will tend to break the normal Laws of Physics – meaning, that they still bring with them a lot of thoughts about their work or their private lives, anyway. And having a constant 100 Mbps connection to the outside world doesn’t necessarily help with that. These type of distractions, however small, are like termites: it starts with one distracting thought from one person, then it snowballs, and before you know it, for no obvious reason, the whole team is moody.
So how do we stop that?
We cannot stop the human mind from thinking, it's impossible. We can however give it something to think about, i.e. choose to give it a different type of distraction. This is where Ulf comes in. By introducing a concept that is easy to relate to, readily understandable, somewhat thematic to the environment and, most importantly, a little weird – you are inviting the group to participate in a journey of confusion. Amplify that by the resonance that occurs when smart brains start thinking collectively and you have a bizarre but very powerful vibe.
Is the occasional Viking chanting in the room distracting? Yes. Are the final products going to be better because of this? Probably not. But that’s not the real point of doing hackathons anyway, is it? The real long term benefit is not in the forging of useful widgets and features – it’s about strengthening the team. That’s why elements such as saunas,
vodka tastings milkshakes and ATV rides in the wilderness are crucial to a successful hackathon – because they help to bring the team closer together. But they only help to a degree.
By adding a little of Ulf’s spirit into the mix, you get a powerful cocktail that results not just in the outpouring of excellent new products, but also in song (accompanied with harmonicas and ukuleles) and (most importantly) a stronger, inspired product engineering team for whom no mountain is too great to conquer.
The best hackathons are the ones that people talk about for years to come. I'll bet most people will quickly forget exactly what it was we built and what the specific activities were that we did. They will, however, remember the feeling that they had from that day. The distractions, however small they may be, can have a devastating effect on the way everyone feels -and we can’t get rid of them. So let’s replace them with a creative distraction of our own choosing - the spirit of that magnificent Estonian viking!