Last week, our Product Development team had their first ever Hackathon! We decided it was time to take a break from working on our existing projects, and dedicate two days to the high-stakes pizza-fuelled cut-throat competition that is a Hackathon. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a Hackathon is a competition in which teams develop a project from scratch in a short amount of time. In our case we split our four-man development team into two pairs and competed over two days to build two new products.
To make it a fair and balanced fight, we decided to do something that none of us had ever done before, developing new and innovative Trello Power-Ups. Although we’re a team specialising in making plugins for Atlassian applications, Trello was as of yet an Atlassian product we hadn’t dabbled with, so the Hackathon was the perfect opportunity to try our hand at a new craft and build our skills.
Before the action began, we split into our teams and brainstormed potential new and exciting product ideas and, of course, team names. I, Automation Consultants’ newest intern, teamed up with our head of product development, Jack, to form Team Rocket. But instead of building elaborate contraptions to steal Pokémon, we were building a system to make sub-task hierarchies possible in Trello. There were already other power-ups that could do this, but they all lacked the killer feature that made our design the best on the market, a tree view to show the structure of all the hierarchies and modify them with a drag and drop interface.
Our opponents in this development showdown were the 08th MS Team, the code-slinging duo that is our software developers, Himal and Jeff. Their Power-Up, Approvals for Trello, was based on one of our existing successful products, Approvals for Confluence. With a tried and tested design to use for inspiration, and the confidence that comes with a knowing the concept is already a success, they were in a good position from the start, so we knew we had to spend our two days wisely to maximise our productivity and create the superior Power-Up.
On Thursday morning, we split into two teams and set to work designing and programming the products we’d decided upon. Once we got stuck in, we quickly realised that Trello is a surprisingly nice platform to develop for. Its use of a modified implementation of Socket.io means it propagates changes over the network fast, with the time between a change on one browser and that change showing up on another browser usually being well under a second, and its delta based networking means it only sends changes in an object, rather than re-sending the whole object again. There’s a large array of pre-built UI components giving us the fast pace of development that is absolutely vital for a Hackathon, but we also have the option to code UI components from scratch through an iframe when we need that finer degree of control.
From the beginning, things were progressing very quickly. Menus were set up in just a few minutes, with minimal boilerplate code, leaving us plenty of time to get to work on the juicy features. By the end of the first day, we had all the UI done and the beginnings of the tree structure were starting to form. But our competition was racing ahead. The 08th MS Team had decomposed their approvals system very cleanly in two, and were each coding their half with machine-like speed and efficiency.
By the second day we’d all got the hang of Trello development and knew more or less how everything worked. This was the day to add the meat to the skeleton apps we’d built, and put all the building blocks together to make our finished products! It was also the time to crush infuriating bugs in said building blocks that rendered the entire Power-Ups unusable at times. At the end of another intense day of non-stop coding, our Power-Ups were complete and our brains numb. It was finally time for a much anticipated end-of-Hackathon celebration!
We headed to Laser Quest to begin a new kind of competition, but this time, we would all be working as a team against a group of players with delicious sounding bakery themed usernames. After a slight miscommunication, our dev team ended up as the Death Team, a suitably intimidating name for a group which, for the most part, hadn’t played in years.
After being mentally exhausted by the Hackathon, and physically exhausted by the laser tag, we went for a change of pace and a more relaxed (but no less competitive) game of bowling. It was a good time to chat and reflect on the last two days, what we thought of developing for Trello and Hackathons in general. We’d all found Trello enjoyable to develop for, and had very much enjoyed the whole event. I’m certain this won’t be Automation Consultants’ last Hackathon.
When we got back to work on the Monday after a well deserved rest, we prepared our presentations to give to the rest of the company, who would judge the winner. Despite some stressful last minute bug-fixing minutes before we were due to give our presentations, all went well and both products were positively received by our colleagues. We put it to a vote, and after a few days to consider and test our final products, all the votes were in, and our Hierarchy for Trello Power-Up had won! Although Approvals for Trello was a more ambitious app, Hierarchy for Trello’s user-friendly and intuitive design appealed most to our voters, securing us our first Hackathon victory.
We had a lot of fun making new apps from scratch in such a short time, and although Hierarchy for Trello was the winning product, we think both are worth polishing up and releasing to the public. We will be releasing Hierarchy for Trello in August, and Approvals for Trello will follow not long after, so keep an eye out for those new releases coming soon!
Hierarchy for Trello
The winning app was appreciated mostly for its intuitive tree interface. The Power-Up is very easy to understand and can be used without any setup, making it very versatile, and useful for most users in most projects. The feedback we received from the voters was all positive, with people saying it was both simple and professional looking, and felt like a complete product. There are still some improvements to the look and functioning of the Power-Up to make before release, but we were overjoyed to receive this kind of response after just two days of development!
Approvals for Trello
Although a powerful Power-Up, Approvals got some criticism for being quite complex to use. Being a concept initially designed for Confluence, a much more heavy-duty business-focused system, the voters felt it was a little overkill in terms of complexity for the average Trello user, who normally has simpler use cases. We’ve heard this feedback loud and clear, and will be adding support for those simple use cases, drastically reducing setup for users who don’t need the full capabilities of the Power-Up. With these improvements for basic users, and already having the deep functionality that more advanced users need, we’re optimistic about Approvals performing well in the marketplace!
Until the Next Hackathon
The Hackathon has been a good experience for all of us. We found it can be very motivating to work on a brand new project from start to finish in such a short time. It was exciting to put our usual duties of managing larger projects and maintaining current products on hold to develop something so fast, and see things come together in hours rather than days. The closer teamwork involved in working on something small cooperatively presented interesting challenges of how best to divide problems and reallocate workload when tasks took more or less time than expected. Getting the whole company involved with the voting was a nice touch to make the Hackathon a company-wide event rather than entirely relegated to the development team.
Next time, we’d like to find more ways to get the rest of the company involved. Perhaps by having participants from other departments compete with us, we could have more interesting challenges of managing bigger teams, and of course a wider range of products at the end to choose from to develop further. It’s been a great event for our company, our team, and each of us individually, and I think we’ve all gained some useful skills from the experience while having fun. We will definitely be doing this again.