Cudathon 2020: A new approach to innovation
In the last quarter of 2020, Barracuda kicked off its first-ever “Cudathon”—a variation on traditional hackathons intended to spur innovative solutions to a broad array of business problems. Cudathon brought together 30 cross-functional teams from across the company and around the globe to tackle challenges and develop fresh ideas across three different tracks: customer/partner success, sales/marketing, and product/freestyle. The competition was held over three days and judging over a week. Teams presented their projects to the judges in early December, and the first-place teams from each track moved on to a final round of judging in mid-December, with the grand prize winners announced just before the holidays. (Congratulations to Team EVA!)
After it was over, we sat down with COO Hatem Naguib to talk about how Cudathon came about, what the event achieved, and lessons the team learned along the way.
Q&A with COO Hatem Naguib
What role have traditional hackathons, and played at Barracuda in the past?
Hackathons have been part of many engineering cultures for decades, and Barracuda has held hackathons within engineering teams since its origins. About a year after I joined, we did a multi-product team hackathon. The engineers form into teams, and they take time from their normal work to just attack whatever product-based project they want to develop. We find that we get two big benefits from hackathons. First, it’s a huge morale-booster for our engineers as they get a chance to really flex their creative muscles and sort of recharge their batteries. And second, that "unfettered creativity" can lead to develop of ideas that become product features.
For our first cross-product hackathon, out of 10 teams, we got one submission that eventually led to a new product feature. Our second one had higher participation, and that resulted in I think three or four features that got rolled into products. It’s a great way to augment an existing roadmap. So besides boosting morale, hackathons can also drive real innovation. A lot of times engineers don’t get the time to experiment, and hackathons encourage giving the participants times to focus and experiment on what is possible over a short period of time. Many times, that is all that is needed to address problematic areas or assess whether a new technology or tool can solve previously unsolvable challenges.
How is Cudathon different? How did it come about?
After seeing how our first few hackathons went, I asked myself if there might be some way to extend the same benefits to the company as a whole. Why not offer everyone a chance to feel empowered by attacking and solving tough business problems as cross-functional teams? Also, I wondered whether with everyone working from home, did we have a chance to increase participation through remote access? What extra benefits might we get in terms of bringing people from different groups together? I knew there would be challenges to organizing this, so I pulled some key folks into a committee to figure it out. That included Fleming Shi, Tim Jefferson, Don MacLennan, Zach Levow, and Christine Young.
At the outset, we had a specific set of operational, business, and customer problems that we wanted the teams to choose from. But we immediately got feedback, especially from the engineers, that they didn’t want to be told what to do since that wasn’t the spirit of a hackathon. That led us to really step back and come up with a more complete plan, involving a lot of consultation across different teams.
We started by inviting anyone in the company to propose a problem that needed solving, and the response to that just blew me away. We got more than 130 submissions, and they identified a lot of things that could and should be improved. I think of some of these issues as being like scar tissue that builds up as a company gets bigger and more complex. Not just processes and systems that don’t work well, but it’s how we’ve always done it, so no one fixes it. It turns out lots of people were really eager to attack those issues and fix them.
We categorized the submissions, with prizes in each category, and narrowed them down a bit, and then just invited people to form teams and take some time to attack one of these submissions. The results were outstanding. You had teams that pulled in people from Legal, HR, Sales, Engineering, etc., just finding the talent they needed and working together in ways that you rarely see. And that’s persisted—Cudathon is over, but a lot of these teams are still working on their projects. They really feel good about pursuing something that makes a difference.
What do you see happening with Cudathon going forward?
We’ll definitely do it again, but first we’re going to really analyze what worked well and where we could improve. And we will definitely do more engineering-only hackathons too.
One big lesson for me is that it really is possible to break down the silos and get cross-functional teams working together closely on a shared goal. When that happens, they can really think holistically about a given challenge, in a way that produces better results than just approaching it from one perspective. I’ll tell you, I’m not sure it would have gone as well if we weren’t all working remotely because of the pandemic. Just that fact, that every one of us is in the same boat no matter what your function, I think that created a baseline of shared experience that encouraged the breaking down of barriers.
To sum it up, I’ll just say that a large company has got to have processes and rules and a certain amount of oversight (bureaucracy) to function. But that can be constricting at times, and there is a huge value in setting that aside for a short time now and then, and just unleashing people’s natural creativity and ability to organize themselves and work together. After this experience, I can say that I’ve never been more proud of Barracuda, of its can-do culture, of the people that make Barracuda what it is, and of the leaders who dedicated themselves to making Cudathon a success.