From Hackathon to Production: How to Turn Your Hackathon Idea into Reality

By Tai Klein

Several times a year, Oscar hosts a hackathon which encourages engineers, product managers, and designers to come up with creative projects that can be completed in 24 short hours. Projects range widely, from those that will improve Oscar employees’ day-to-day experience, to those that will tangibly impact how our members’ engage with us and their health care experience.

The Oscar Hackathon Logo.

While this is always a fun 24 hour period, it’s an unfortunate reality that, once the hackathon is over, many of these projects fall by the wayside as we go back to our everyday tasks.

In last quarter’s hackathon, I won a small prize for building automated testing for the Oscar mobile app, a project I have continued to work on since. Below, I share some tips on how to make your hackathon idea a reality — without sacrificing your nights and weekends.

Every 3 weeks, Oscar releases an updated version of the Oscar Member mobile app. Before we can release the app, our Product Managers must run through an elaborate testing document for Quality Assurance. QA takes up to 10 hours of valuable time every release!

16.2) Account Creation — Get a Quote
1. From the login screen tap “Create an account”
2. To the broker question, answer “No, get a quote”
3. Quote-to-card should open in your web browser

In short, the testing utility I built using detox runs through QA flows and checks copy, visual, and logic. It also takes screenshots and videos for human review. Product Managers can now test the app 5x faster! Taking this idea from hackathon project to full-fledged operationality, however, wasn’t easy.

Testing the Oscar Member App

Making sure your project can go from hackathon to reality starts with practicality. A good hackathon idea, in my mind, is pragmatic and focused. The best idea in the world might not be feasible for a hackathon.

A practical hackathon idea should:

  • Aim to solve a clear, quantifiable problem. e.g. Mobile QA testing is repetitive, boring, and error-prone. PMs spend ~10 hours every 3 weeks on QA.
  • Be simple to pitch. e.g. I am automating QA testing for the mobile app.
  • Have a metric of success. e.g. I think we can get QA time down to 2 hours (5x reduction).
  • Be visually interesting. e.g. Here’s a GIF (safer than a live demo) of the output, and a visual reminder of the work.
  • Show improvement on a small time scale. e.g. We automated 1 test today, but I think I can do 10 next week.
  • Have a narrow starting point, but a potentially broad scope. e.g. It’s not just useful for PMs and Engineers, but we could in the future use it to build a ‘living’ mock of the app using screenshots. Other departments, like product or marketing, could use that!

Once you have a focused idea, it’s time to identify key stakeholders so your idea gains traction.

Who are the high impact stakeholders for your idea? For me, it was mainly product managers and their managers. I identified people in the chain above me who could benefit from the project, and got their attention and excitement. The sooner you can reach out the better!

Ideas to make people care about your project:

  • Gather metrics. e.g. How much time do you spend QAing mobile tests?
  • Ask for help. e.g. Why does it take so long to QA?
  • Refine your idea. e.g. In an ideal world, how would you like to see the QA results?
  • Help broaden scope. e.g. What other applications do you see these screenshots being useful for?
  • Improve visibility. e.g. Can I use your face with a caption “this is great” on my presentation slide?

So, you’ve presented your hackathon project. People think it will change the world. Now what? Let it die? NO!

This is where those stakeholders you identified become important. Make it easy for your manager to justify allocating time for you to work on your project by maintaining a relationship with people invested in your project.

Maintaining interest is super hard! But you don’t have to do it forever. The ultimate goal is to get your project into a sustainable feedback system like one we already have in place at Oscar. That’s right! Get building your project on your list of quarterly goals.

Your dedicated project time can be as solid as your quarterly goals! It becomes important to your manager that you build out your hackathon project. It’s also then important to your manager’s manager. By building your project into your quarterly goals, you can work on your project on company time without shame, remorse, or stressful deadlines. Half a week of buy-in on the next quarter’s goals is a great place to start and is low commitment for your bosses.

One caveat here is that building relationships with stakeholders isn’t going to get your project prioritized by itself. Prove the value of your project with a clear and quantifiable problem, success metrics, and a quality implementation roadmap.

The last step seems obvious, but interpretations of this vary. For me, it’s not about how hard you work but about how well you communicate! Set expectations with the people around you and then match or exceed them.

Here’s some tips on follow-through:

  • Have an achievable goal for your allocated time frame. Be realistic. Remember “9 women can’t birth a baby in 1 month”. Mine was to automate +50% of my team’s tests in a week.
  • Fail fast and make the lesson public. Sometimes projects don’t work out. Write a good report / postmortem and people will think it was a valuable use of your time.
  • Prove it’s working. I measured how long it took PMs to do QA before and during ramping up the automated QA tests.