Is Your Company Due for a Hackathon?

For Cornerstone OnDemand, an annual hackathon inspires product innovation and strengthens corporate culture.

In 2013, 25 teams at Cornerstone OnDemand convened for a single purpose: work for 24 hours straight to create something new.

Hackathons—popularized by tech giants like Facebook and Google—are day-long events during which employees are asked to work together and think outside their day-to-day boxes to develop new products and processes.

“We started realizing that we didn’t want to have innovation, new ideas and change come from the top down. There was a need for us to do something grassroots and have everyone contribute,” recalls Pratik Savai, VP of Application Development at Cornerstone.

But the human resources software company wasn’t simply hoping to incubate new ideas. It was also looking to uncover creativity within its ranks and forge new bonds among its employees.

“The goal was for everyone to showcase their abilities and inspire everyone else, and to create an environment where you can come up with something that maybe won't show value, but shows others your creativity,” Savai says.

These hackathons, which Cornerstone now holds annually, not only result in really innovative ideas (some of which the company has adopted and implemented), but they also encourage camaraderie and collaboration among employees.

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Let the Hack Begin

Teams assemble when Cornerstone announces the hackathon’s date, one month before the event. In the four years since the company’s first hackathon, Savai says participation has doubled and the effort has gone global. This year, about 50 teams enrolled, from the company’s headquarters in Santa Monica, California, to its New Zealand offices.

While hackathons are traditionally developer-heavy, Cornerstone encourages employees from all departments to participate. If you have a fresh idea but maybe not the skillset to execute it, you can recruit developers to join your team.

“People are encouraged to seek out others from different backgrounds and offices—that creates a lot of the excitement,” Savai says.

One month out, Cornerstone also announces the hackathon’s tracks. During this year’s event, tracks included AI, machine integrations, new products and optimizations. These tracks are just suggestions to inspire innovation, Savai says; ideas outside these tracks are permitted, too.

On the day of the hackathon, Cornerstone's executives welcome the teams and acknowledge past winners and their ideas that have turned into product offerings. For the next 24 hours, teams work on prototypes, preparing them to be judged by a panel of Cornerstone leaders.

“We assign everyone a time slot for the demo and presentation, and judge based on four criteria: how viable their hack is, how functionally ready it is, how intuitive it is and how impactful it is,” Savai says.

This narrows the pool of teams to around 10, which then advance to a final round of judging. A few days later, Cornerstone awards teams first-, second- and third-place prizes that have in the past ranged from iPads to drones.

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From Prototype to Product

Cornerstone’s hackathons have spurred a number of ideas that have made it to prime time. One of the early winners created a prototype called Cornerstone View, an interactive data visualization tool that gives unique insights into a company's talent data.

Winning teams have also designed user-interface ideas, diagnostic tools and other upgrades to Cornerstone's current processes. These have included displaying the progress of some activities or workflows within the application, as well as adding tweaks that make the application's processes more transparent and intuitive for the end user.

While these tangible benefits of the hackathons are valuable, the intangibles are also priceless, says Savai.

“Hackathons boost morale and they help to identify the talent that exists within your organization. It's a great opportunity to see how creative people are, and how they think outside the box.”

Kristin Burnham
By Kristin Burnham | December 7, 2017

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