Most tech companies face real challenges in creating an environment that brings about innovation. Inspiring this kind of creativity requires the right factors to foster the creation of new ideas and execute them. Hackathons serve as temporary environments outside of everyday work schedules which can result in the development of creative solutions to existing problems while improving team morale and networking.  

DoorDash engineers always look to overcome challenging problems with creative and practical solutions, whether it’s bringing a new experience to our customers or improving internal processes with new tools. Company-wide hackathons are one method we use to propagate innovation. 

Setting these events up with a deliberate design, organization, and themes brings out the kind of innovation that will delight the merchants, consumers, and Dashers (our term for delivery drivers) who use our platform, and solve internal challenges the company has been working to overcome. From our experience in holding hackathons, we came up with three essential elements for successfully maximizing the innovative solutions they typically produce.  

Hackathons at DoorDash 

DoorDash supported hackathons for a long time, even before our unprecedented growth, which has helped us perfect their structure and execution. Starting with our first hackathon in 2015, all kinds of applied ingenuity, not just software products or features, have arisen from these events. Hacks can span anything from product features and pitches to a new local market experiment. Some notable examples from past hackathons have been:

  • Kitchens Without Borders: This program promotes the rich heritage of merchants from different countries who immigrated to the United States. Entering “KWB” in DoorDash’s app search field brings up local restaurants promoted through this program. 
  • Dark Mode:  This new mobile feature lessens the eye strain Dashers experience when making deliveries at night by enabling a theme that reduces screen brightness. 
  • WeDash Dashboard: Our engineers make food deliveries using our platform to understand Dasher pain points. The WeDash Dashboard lets engineers gain real-time insights about their deliveries, and displays the Dasher fees they accumulate, which we donate to charity. 

Hackathon participants can either come up with an original idea and  execute it, or pursue a sponsored hack, a predefined challenge to solve an issue faced by the company. Our most recent hackathons used sponsored hacks to help provide inspiration to participants who want to focus on solving real DoorDash problems. Participants who want this kind of structure can join hackathon teams specifically designed to address company OKRs. 

How hackathons create an ideal innovation environment 

Hackathons bring out the type of creativity that ignites innovation in even the most mature companies, but they need certain factors to be effective. At DoorDash, hackathons demonstrate how to create innovation through their combination of cross-functional teams working together, themes that structure the event, and the overall organization and incentives schemes we use to help participants do their best.

Creating new ideas by encouraging cross-functional teams 

DoorDash currently operates with over 6,000 employees and hundreds of teams that operate fairly independently. Being able to meet and work with members of other teams helps create innovation by gathering individuals with different perspectives and experiences. 

Hackathons at DoorDash are designed in such a way that they encourage cross-functional collaboration. By mixing up our normally established teams we can build hackathon groups that are small, motivated, and have all the skills required to execute the proposed hack. Having participants from a variety of different teams organized into hackathon groups also helps mix things up, bringing in fresh ideas and new perspectives. These factors are typically thought of as the ingredients for innovation, helping teams come up with creative solutions during the event. 

How themes provide inspiration at hackathons

Themes play a large part in driving the creative direction of hackathons, as they provide inspiration to create something that aligns with the company’s direction. Each of our hackathons will have a specific theme that always reflects some mixture of an important issue facing the company, the team members, and the communities we serve. 

These themes allow each event to focus on a different important area and ensure that the resulting hacks address it. Themes also help assemble hackathon teams, as they naturally form based on their members’ common interests. While optional, themes provide participants with direction and focus areas to brainstorm new ideas.

We develop our themes by gauging the general interests of the company and employees. One way we gather these interests is by reviewing the questions asked during company AMA sessions and looking at the company’s quarterly OKRs. We also meet with senior company leaders and executives to get their thoughts on what large problems or new feature types the next hackathon should address. These different sources help us come up with a short list of themes.

Examples of some of the previous themes include improving our company and platform’s: 

  • Accessibility
  • Growth
  • User retention
  • Social impact

Themes should align with our teams’ interests and the direction of the company. We often add internal tooling as a theme because it is critical to improving developer velocity, which directly impacts DoorDash’s business.

Generating motivation through awards and recognition

All the choices in how a hackathon is structured impact the participants’ motivation and the overall results. As one example, we chose a frequency of two hackathons per year. This cadence makes them feel special, like something apart from a normal work schedule, and gives participants extra motivation to showcase their best ideas to the company and its leaders.

Prizes, another structural element, encourage innovation through competition. The award categories vary from event to event but are designed to attract more participation and make the winning teams feel proud of their achievements. In the past, we have offered gift baskets, invitations to events with our CEO and other c-suite executives, DoorDash credits, and a variety of other cool prizes to help motivate our participants to compete their hardest. 

The fact that some hackathon projects end up on our development roadmap also serves to motivate participants. Once hacks are in production, they can contribute to the business, benefiting the company and generating value for consumers, Dashers, and merchants. 

Finally, swag never fails. We design new shirts for each hackathon and give them to participants and volunteers. Armed with hackathon themes, our design team crafts fun, fashionable, and memorable shirts and pins, and advertising materials such as posters and Zoom backgrounds. Swag is a worthwhile investment as it brings a lot of community bonding to hackathons.

The benefits of hackathons

For DoorDash, hackathons spur innovation, build team spirit, foster creativity, focus on customer experiences, and improve internal operational efficiency. Each event makes it possible to bring together different sides of the business. This collaboration helps teams come up with creative solutions to solve customer problems and also enables employees to establish cross-functional relationships.

Apart from being a collaborative platform, hackathons also give our people more visibility and showcase their ideas to the company and leadership team. These ideas get a chance to be part of the business and generate revenue for the company.

Conclusion

Companies investing in their engineering and company culture may find that hackathons are a good investment in their employees and products. We found that hackathons served as networking opportunities, resulting in increased collaboration, better product understanding, and helped to solve future problems. Companies that already support or are interested in holding hackathons can take advantage of a series of planning and execution steps which improved the experience for our team. 

First, having senior leaders judge our hackathons meant immediate visibility from management, and resulted in projects getting staffed and developed. Second, creating themes that encourage cross-functional participation help bring structure and assemble hackathon teams. Finally, it helps to include awards determined by popular votes among employees who didn’t participate in the hackathon. These types of awards increase exposure to the company as a whole, and allow non-participants to play a role.

Overall, hackathons define Doordash’s collaborative, customer-focused, and inclusive culture. These events serve as a great example for prospective employees to understand DoorDash as a company and why it’s a great place to grow one’s career.