Building happy teams

A Quick Step-by-Step Guide to Running a Hackathon

4460 2973 Sudheer Bandaru

Tech teams at all companies can probably relate to this predicament: as you work to execute your company’s product roadmap, the urgency of reaching a deadline or constraints of working on the current business problems can dampen your engineers’ creativity and exploration of new technologies.

As a CTO, it’s my mission to be sure we meet the business needs of our company. But as the leader of a team of rockstar engineers, it’s also my mission to keep them challenged and excited by the work at hand. I want to give them an opportunity to work on the latest tech, make their cool ideas a reality, and have some fun together. What’s the answer to each of these desires? The hackathon!

We recently held a successful hackathon and I wanted to share our process with other tech teams in case you’re inspired to conduct one of your own. Here are the steps we followed to run our hackathon:

The planning stage:

Hackathon at Shortlist

Planning mode on

1. Pick a theme

Honing in on the right theme or focus for the hackathon is crucial. At Shortlist, our engineers are very curious about new technology and have a high learning velocity. Experimenting with emerging technologies is a great way for engineers to sharpen their skills and gain the thrill of learning something new.

With this in mind, we came up with the theme of “Solving business problems that aren’t part of the immediate roadmap, using any tech of your choice.”

This theme ensures that:
– The solutions developed by the teams can still be used by the business if approved
– Engineers get own the project end-to-end, from idea to research to production
– The team gets to use the latest tech or cool and crazy ideas to solve a problem, which otherwise may not be pragmatic for a real-time application

2. Involve everyone in the preparation

We sent out a survey to the team to get their feedback on important components of the hackathon, like the duration, timing and more ideas. This helped everyone feel invested and is how the excitement starts to build up.

3. Prepare the rules of the hackathon

This can include rules around not touching production applications, checking in code to master branches, choking the production databases and more. The last thing we want out of the hackathon is a P1 impacting our users.

4. Select judges

It’s a great idea to involve your business teams here to showcase the creativity and talent of the tech team to the rest of the company. We sent out a note to our Leadership team asking for volunteer judges, and our “Jury” included our CEO, Managing Director of India, Business Head of Africa, India Sales head, Product Director and Director of Strategic Initiatives.

You could also open it up to the entire company and make the presentation day more of a social event, or invite prospective employees that you are recruiting to your engineering team to attend as a way to show off the fun culture of your tech team.

7. Settle the logistics

Make sure the dates of the hackathon aren’t impacting release schedules. We started the hackathon right after our sprint release (Wednesday) and blocked Thursday and Friday for the hackathon. To make it more fun, we planned a Go-Karting event and dinner after the hackathon to unwind and celebrate.

There are a few things you can do to be sure that the teams are at their peak performance during the hackathon. Start the hackathon as on a normal working day, and not too early in the morning. Since we expected engineers to be working until late night (or early morning), it’s important to have their normal sleep routine and be ready to rock the next day. Based on the survey, we started the hackathon on Thursday morning around 10 am and scheduled to demo the final products on Friday at 4 pm giving them around 30 hours of time to develop solutions.

We also provided lots of snacks during the hackathon to keep up everyone’s energy!

5. Create teams

Hackathon at Shortlist

Team brainstorming on ideas

Mix and match your engineers into teams that are different than the ones they typically work in. It’s a great experience for them to work with someone new, and it may even reveal unexpected synergies and give you new ideas on ways to form teams moving forward.

6. Select the problem statements for each team to solve

There are a variety of ways to approach this – while some hackathons select a single problem and have every team come up with unique solutions, but we did it differently. Remember, we are trying to solve business problems not done via roadmap! We came up with four different problem statements, one for each team.

8. Decide on criteria and create a scorecard

Come up with clear instructions to evaluate the hackathon. Share the same with participating teams and jury. Here’s a snapshot of the scorecard for the hackathon which was shared with the judges.

scoring card of Shortlist hack event

During the Hackathon

Hackathon at Shortlist

Hackathon in progress

After all the preparation and planning, the Big Day has arrived. Kick-off the day by sharing the new teams, problem statements, rules, winning criteria, logistics and most importantly, the motivation. The whole team was super excited about the problem statements, their new teams and an opportunity to show off their business knowledge and problem-solving skills.

While we had four teams with the front end, backend and QA engineers, we also had some common players across the teams. Product Manager, Designer, DevOps engineer were all around to help any teams with relevant work to accelerate their solutions. I did a 3-hour check-in with each team to ensure they aren’t stuck and are moving in the right direction all the while cheering them on.

I strongly encouraged every team to spend the first 1-2 hours towards brainstorming ideas and planning the execution before diving straight into coding. After the lunch break, everyone was excited to start their work.

Presentation time

Hackathon at Shortlist

Showtime at the hackathon

All the teams were so exhausted with hardly any sleep, but the excitement of demo time kept them awake and enthusiastic. Since the Shortlist team is spread across three offices, we held the presentation via Zoom conference. Each team had 12 minutes to demo their problem statement, solution and answer questions from the panel. As we had four teams, we gave ourselves 90 minutes for the complete demo session. It was an amazing experience for the panel and the tech team as every solution came out to be very innovative and valuable. On a scale of 5, final scores had a very narrow gap of hundredth decimal points ranging from 4.28 to 4.32.

The solutions in the hackathon included building a two-way instant messenger, proctoring using video and screen capture, Chrome plugin for sourcing candidates from external job boards and finally, an amazon skill that enabled our business users to ask Alexa about any data related question across each of our offices. All of these were out-of-the-box ideas for the kind of business problems that were given to the teams.

Other Observations

While we achieved everything we intended to with the hackathon, I am thrilled to share the unexpected surprises that arose from the whole process. As each team was struggling to come up with their own solution, everyone was ready to help the other teams where possible. This showed the amount of respect they have for other team members during the competition.

Additionally, when we announced the winner, the winning team wanted to pass on the prize to the next team as they believed the challenge from other teams were, even more, higher and they deserved it! With the smart and thoughtful gestures of the team members, everyone became a winner making it a winning hackathon.

After a week of the hackathon completion, our first solution was pushed to production with minimal extra effort and we are able to see tremendous value. Yes, the tech team and business team were both excited to conduct more of these hackathons and we are looking forward to the next one soon!

Related Article: You’re a talented engineer — here are 5 reasons why you should join a startup

Team culture at ICC

Startup Culture Stories: The India Climate Collaborative

1186 580 Shortlist

“Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.” 

Lou Gerstner Jr., IBM

Culture is a key aspect of any organization. It is especially true for startups who want to survive past their early days, grow and expand their businesses. Startup culture is moulded by the founders and the people working there.

What are the key aspects of building a great culture, what role does leadership play in it, how do startups hire for culture fit – find the answers for these questions below. We spoke with Shireen Mistree, who leads and manages the hiring process for ICC (India Climate Collaborative) on her thoughts on building culture and how ICC is nurturing a high-performing culture.

How do you define the startup culture at your workplace?

Shireen: ICC, as a company, is literally being set-up as we speak. We have been mindful of who we take on in our team. Apart from (obviously) the skillset, we want “Team Uplifters” – people who understand what it is to work together and collectively as a team. Shloka (Executive Director) along with other members of the leadership team work hard to ensure that we keep creating opportunities and environment where everyone feels comfortable to share their opinions, thoughts and concerns openly. We place a lot of emphasis on these aspects as we build culture at ICC.

What is your approach towards hiring for culture fit?

Shireen: We are a young, vibrant and dynamic team. We try to gauge early in the hiring process if the candidate will fit in seamlessly in our culture. Will they be open to building an institution and not just their own profile and if they will be able to take instructions and directions from somebody younger to them. We are very open and honest with the candidates, making it clear that we operate as a startup. You will have to be a self-starter, someone who is not afraid to take the initiative and contribute to the organization’s vision and mission.

What are you doing to promote a high-performance culture?

Shireen: Shloka (Chief Executive Director) is continuously invested in the individual growth of team members. She has one-on-one chats with all team members helping them understand things they are doing well and creating plans to improve for areas of development. This way, the team is motivated to deliver because the top management invests in their growth and aspirations. We ensure that the team has all the creative space to complete the task with an expectation that they uphold quality standards and deliver within mutually agreed-upon timelines.

What advice would you like to share with other startups and companies on building culture?

Shireen: Constantly check-in on the aspirations of the individuals that you hire, make sure you are able to meet those aspirations and ensure you acknowledge the team’s efforts. While achieving every milestone that the organization initially set out to do, it is essential to be transparent, leaving nobody confused or ambiguous. The team should never be taken by surprise over the decisions.

What role does leadership play in nurturing and promoting the startup culture with the growth of the organization?

Shireen: Leadership should be invested in individual growth and aspirations of team members along with enhancing their skill sets which could be hugely beneficial to the organization. It has been our experience that when leadership is invested in the employee as an individual and not just as a person who has been brought on to do a job; growth of the organization is inevitable.

Thank you Shireen for your insightful answers, your responses will be super helpful for other startups to build their culture.

Did reading these insights on building culture at startup inspire you? We have more stories on startup culture coming up for you. Stay tuned.

Building great team culture

How They Did It: Building the Kenyan Originals Team Culture

5725 3822 Shortlist

We all know what it’s like to be part of a company with a great team culture – the energy is electric and the results are evident. There is a clear vision and purpose that drives action and performance. Team members understand both their individual and collective value to the company.

Company culture is not about wearing matching jumpers to team lunches. It is in the everyday – the way decisions are made, the way people interact, the way meetings are run, and so on. It encompasses the company’s values, norms, systems and beliefs. It’s the way companies “do things”. Of the many amazing examples of culture-building that we have come across, Kenyan Originals is amongst those that stand out. Though nascent, Kenyan Originals founder Alexandra Chappatte has managed to create a great product concept, a riveting brand story and an engaged team. Here’s how she did it:

The Kenyan Originals Product

Powerful punch of 100% Kenyan fruit cider.

Alexandra’s initial focus was on getting the product right because no matter how amazing the brand story or team is, no one will buy if the product does not effectively deliver on its promise.

Kenyan Originals was born of a passion for quality social beverages that champion the African story. The Kenyan Original ciders are made from an infusion of 100% Kenyan fruit and herbs, pressed, fermented, brewed and bottled locally.  Despite facing difficulties with waste (real fruit goes bad real fast!) and procedural challenges with the Kenya Bureau of Standards, Kenyan Originals has managed to survive on authenticity, consistency and continuous improvement. As Alexandra said, “sticking to our guns on this has been a real test in resilience but critical to the product DNA.”

The Kenyan Originals product was able to target a consumer pain point and rival its competition by ensuring premium flavour, distinct packaging and accessible distribution points (restaurants, bars, events, online). Alex began by first identifying a need, then coming up with a great solution, doing intensive market research as well as product testing and finally launching with a compelling product and brand.

According to Alexandra, the step that tends to be most overlooked when starting out with product development is market research. Doing business without market research is like sailing without a compass, especially in the FMCG industry where competition is raging. Market research is essential in mapping out consumer needs, ensuring reduced risk, staying ahead of the competition, gauging the pulse of the market and ultimately, making certain that one launches the right product; not as it was initially thought of in a light bulb moment, but a data-driven version with a ready market.

The Kenyan Originals Brand

Kenyan Originals. Proudly African.

The Kenyan Originals’ target consumers are the “hipsters of Nairobi” – the mavericks and hustlers who are set on shaping modern Kenya. One of their effective brand strategies is to collaborate with people whose purpose and vision is tied to igniting a culture of creativity in Kenya. This includes matatu artists, fashion designers such as David Avido, photographers, and music festivals such as Koroga and Africa Nouveau. By being able to connect with the audience’s eclectic passion points, the Kenyan Originals team has managed to create a brand story that transcends the product.

The “brand story” – which means the cohesive narrative that weaves together both facts and the emotions that a brand elicits – has helped to maximise Kenyan Originals’ visibility, sales and impact. By constantly communicating to their consumers why the product was created and what it stands for, consumers are engaged on a much deeper level.

If the Kenyan Originals brand was built around just the functional aspects of the beverage, it would have attracted lacklustre buyers as it would fail to appeal to the human element in the decision-making process. Today’s consumers crave authenticity than ever before. As explained in How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market, purchasing decisions are driven in part by subconscious cues, the biggest of which is emotion. Therefore, by choosing to communicate and sell something bigger – patriotism, creativity, individuality, pride and embodiment of the Kenyan spirit and character – the product has been well received, selling out at events, restaurants and supermarkets in Nairobi.

The Kenyan Originals Team Culture 

A team is only as good as the people in it. It is therefore crucial to hire high-performers with proven capabilities and the right attitude to get your product and brand off the ground.

Here’s to unity that inspires.

For the Kenyan Originals team, it has been extremely valuable to allow people to be part of creating the team culture. “Nowhere have we written what the company’s culture is about. It’s for these Kenyan Originals to define it.  All we’ve done is tried to hire the right tribe,” Alexandra explained.

When hiring for culture fit, it is important to recognise your biases, as it is natural to want to hire like-minded people. That is why for the Kenyan Originals team, the product value is at the focal point as this ensures that hiring and team decisions are driven by a bigger purpose. The purpose of Kenyan Originals and how it relates to the Kenyan community has been a great driver of internal and external success. In the same vein, the why has been critical in ensuring that the Kenyan Originals team continually performs at a high level. One of the simple ways this has been instituted is by having a written-down statement of intention for the brand that inspires and guides the team.

In Alexandra’s case, while creating a culture of collaboration, trust and innovation have been deliberate, it has also been propelled by establishing a team culture that enables employees to be the best they can be, then allowing them to run with it. They say that a company is an elongated shadow of its leader, therefore, the Kenyan Originals team thrives on creativity and excellence, as Alexandra embodies creativity and excellence in her day to day life.

Thank you to Alexandra and the Kenyan Originals team for sharing how they built their company culture. Their story shows the magic in synergising all pillars of the business in pursuit of success. The product influences the brand which influences the team and vice versa. Other companies can follow suit by continuously creating practices that encourage innovation, audience engagement and a team culture of trust and empowerment.

What do you think are the important elements of creating a successful consumer product and team culture? Tweet us at @Shortlisthires and watch out for more resources on company culture during our ongoing team culture campaign!

psychological safety

Psychological safety makes the team work

6720 4480 Yvonne Kilonzo

During Shortlist’s October edition of 17@7, Doris Muigei, Head of Business Development and Partnerships at Shortlist East Africa spoke about how SMEs can attract top tier talent. In case you missed it, you can watch the full video here. As you will learn, one of the pivotal conversations was that of psychological contracts and psychological safety, which emerged as critical factors when considering retention of unicorns (read: your awesome, top tier employees). 

So, what is a psychological contract? Simply put, it is an unwritten set of expectations, disparate from the official, codified employment contract. (Read More)

The psychological contract should not just exist as part of the recruitment process but should continuously be referred and adhered to. Perceived breaches can lead to mistrust, employee disengagement, reduced productivity, severed employer-employee relationships and ultimately, attrition. Consequently, the psychological contract is a key driver of whether top tier hires will stay and grow your business to the skies or dive back into the sea of organisations eager to hire them.

Companies ensure consideration for employees’ psychological contracts by creating a psychologically safe work environment. Psychological Safety, as described by renowned Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, is “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” (Read More) It is about “giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes and learning from each other,” Prof. Edmondson further explains. Psychological safety involves creating an environment of fairness and trust where each individual is welcome to voice their opinions freely, experiment without judgement and fail without being marked a failure. An environment where all employees feel accepted and respected.

How can you make your workplace psychologically safe?

Creating a psychologically safe work environment requires consistent care and effort. While it is the responsibility of everyone in the organisation to uphold team values and norms, leadership holds the most impact. Employees are aware of and take their cues from their leaders’ behaviour. It is therefore critical for leaders to act in a way that encourages accessibility, fallibility, accountability and trust.

In a psychologically safe environment, people actively share ideas, challenge systems, ask questions and tackle tough conversations head-on. Imagine that. Imagine the output when people have the brain space to think outside the box, rather than mull over the validity of their questions or project ideas. Imagine the growth when collaborative thinking is encouraged and teams are allowed to reach their full potential. Haven’t we all attended a brainstorm session where everyone simply nodded in agreement to everything the most senior person in the room said? An effective team should share ideas, strengthen plans, ask questions and support each other. 

Psychological safety is the seed that nourishes curiosity, confidence, a speak-up culture and innovation. 

A few years ago, Google embarked on a project –  Project Aristotle – to unearth the key elements of effective teams. This involved a two-year study on what it takes to build high performing teams comprising over 200 interviews of 180+ active Google teams and administered by a team of psychologists, engineers and statisticians. Psychological safety, Google found, was the most important dynamic of the highest performing teams. 

Practical tips on cultivating psychological safety

Each individual and each team is different, so you will need to dig a little deeper to discover what works for yours. That notwithstanding, here are some practical tips to nudge you along the way: 

  1. Open up the feedback lines: Ask lots of questions during team meetings and one-on-ones to get you to understand how the team feels about inclusivity, the culture around failure and team dynamics. Open communication creates an expanse for honesty, clarity and healthy conflict, and ensures spirited movement towards shared goals. In meetings, active listening should be the order of the day – no phones, no emails, no latest music on Youtube – just intentional discussion between the people in the room. Two-way communication should not only be encouraged – it should be institutionalised.
  2. Share belonging cues: “Belonging cues are behaviours that encourage safe connection in groups,” Daniel Coyle explains in The Culture Code. As humans, we have a knack for reading cues. For us to thrive, it is essential that a sense of belonging is regularly refreshed and reinforced. This includes communicating with behaviour cues in mind: eye contact, turn sharing, attention and body language. Cues that communicate that you’re safe here, you can put in effort, you are a valuable part of this special group and we believe in you.
  3. Make sure that the learning never stops: A major part of learning and innovating is encouraging experimentation. If something goes wrong, take the time to understand why before abandoning ship and reaching to the next solution. Encourage curiosity by asking questions. For instance, when mistakes are made, place more emphasis on the resolution rather than the faux pas.
  4. Acknowledge your fallibility: admit to your faults. By admitting to your mistakes, you make it more comfortable for employees in the room to do the same. When you treat failure as a possible outcome, learning and fruitful discussion on working together to improve results is encouraged. Failure is an event, not a person; no employee, not even you as a leader, should feel like a failure because they failed at a task.
  5. Practice transparency: a common myth is that psychological safety is about being nice. The truth is, it’s about openness. It involves being real about the nature of work, engaging in generative dialogue and supporting each other’s growth. San Antonio Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich, embodies the spirit of psychological safety in the way he leads his team. “He’ll tell you the truth, with no bull**, and then he’ll love you to death,” assistant coach Chip Engelland says. Highly successful cultures may be energized and engaged but they’re not simply fun lighthearted places. They involve a mission to solve hard problems together which requires uncomfortable truth-telling and many moments of high candour feedback. With the right behaviour cues however, the team is strengthened. 
  6. Define your values: bearing this in mind, it may be helpful to have a written set of norms that guide employee behaviour; a set of values that everyone can hold each other accountable to. At Shortlist, our values are not only prominent on our website but on one of our Kenya office walls too. Our values are regularly referenced in feedback conversations and team meetings as well as used as a guide for work practices, daily decisions and performance reviews. This encourages a sense of purpose, inclusion and fairness, all tied to something tangible, transparent and understood by the entire team.

In order to build a culture that embodies psychological safety, it is important to also recognise the different subcultures that exist in your company and constantly check in with your team to ensure that if changes are necessitated, course correction is done in a timely manner. 

It takes time and deliberate effort. Keep going…you’ll have a more productive organisation as a result!

How do you create psychological safety in your organisation? Tweet us at @Shortlisthires and watch out for more resources on company culture during our ongoing culture code campaign that will run until February 2020! 

What is company culture?

Company Culture: It’s more than free food and bean bags

1000 726 Yvonne Kilonzo

Creating a thriving workplace culture that employees love and are passionate about is every employer’s dream. However, despite the vast array of literature highlighting different aspects of company culture, it’s still difficult for many companies to define what team culture is and what it’s not.

If this sounds like your company, have no fear, Shortlist is here to cast light on all things team culture…read on!

What is company culture and what is it not?

Company culture is a company’s character; it encompasses the company’s values, norms, systems, symbols, beliefs and habits. Culture is what defines employees’ code of conduct, including how employees should behave in meetings, the risks they can take, the unwritten rules that exist and all. In brief, company culture guides teams in their daily work-life and if you are lucky to have a strong culture, it binds the team together.

Companies tend to link defining their company culture with hosting fun activities. Hence, they frequently associate culture with the cool stuff (karaoke nights, free beer on Fridays, Secret Santa traditions) that showcase companies as an enjoyable place to work, rather than communicating what the company actually stands for as well as its values. Don’t get us wrong, free lunch and bean bags are great, however, they do not in themselves set or define company culture.

In order to win talent and set a strong culture, organisations need to ensure that every team member, from top to bottom, lives by the firm’s values.

Why is culture important?

Be it a start-up or a  corporate, a productive company culture helps to drive the company’s mission, goals and objectives in the following ways:

#1 – Attracting talent 

In today’s job market, the best candidates have many options; they are empowered with the ability to choose where they would like to work. This shift calls for companies to come up with initiatives that are a magnet for top talent, particularly because candidates can get a view of the internal work environment of a company through Indeed and Glassdoor reviews or by reaching out to someone within the team through LinkedIn.

It is important to have a workplace culture which nurtures employees who can double up as influential recruitment brand ambassadors. Just as a new customer would trust a referral from an existing one, so do candidates. Companies should strive to win their internal clients over through a culture that inspires cohesion, trust and confidence as well as celebrates individual and team success. You can survey your current team on their view of your corporate culture and values to understand how your team experiences your culture and what they are likely to share with candidates. For example, Twitter employees rated the company highly in corporate culture and values boasting of a supportive and motivational team-oriented environment as well as a great mission statement. This is a good sign of how their employees operate as brand ambassadors.

#2 – Employee engagement

Employee engagement is defined by how individuals feel about the work environment, their workmates and their job, and it is highly driven by culture. Engaged employees display great commitment towards their work and have a genuine motivation to exceed their goals.

Great company culture can help to ensure that every team member knows their role in the organisation and how they fit into the company’s ultimate goals and objectives. When the team connects with the company culture, it gives their day to day tasks broader purpose and they feel like they do meaningful work. It gives them the energy to be at work and infuses a deep sense of ownership and employee loyalty. Teams with a great culture are more likely to come up with new ideas and also inspire the best out of other team members.

On the contrary, employees who do not see how they fit into the company’s goals tend to have a negative attitude towards their work. A poorly defined culture could further instil fear and mistrust among employees and also between employees and leadership. This eventually affects both individual and team motivation and performance.

Although work may be challenging, companies can help reduce individual stress through a strong culture. It is imperative for companies to promote a culture that allows employees to be the best versions of themselves and motivates them to work towards the company’s success. For example, Google strives to keep its employees happy through the freedom to be creative, a flexible work schedule among other intangible benefits. As a result, it was named the tech firm with the best corporate culture.

#3 – Retaining talent

Companies exert a ton of time and energy hiring the best people – thus, it makes sense for them to work just as hard to keep talent in the company. While competitive compensation and great benefits may keep employees hooked to a company, the role that a winning culture plays in retaining great talent cannot be understated.

Individuals are looking to work for organisations whose goals and objectives resonate with theirs, as well as a company that is genuinely interested in their growth. This was evident in our employer brand survey which showed that professionals value learning and promotion opportunities over salary and stability. Job seekers are looking for companies that offer freedom and encourage openness by having an open-door policy. When employees find such employers, they tend to be satisfied and happy, increasing their chances of staying longer at the company.  Safaricom, for example, has emerged as a top employer in Kenya in multiples reports for years now. The telecommunications giant’s employees appreciate its fast-paced yet fun environment that also offers real opportunities for growth.

Overall, an exceptional company culture is a win-win for both employees and employers. Employees get to be the best versions of themselves and perform at their full potential while employers get to attract and retain effective star talent. There is no better time than now for companies to promote a culture that defines them in a way that enables them to win both internally and externally.

How do you ensure a thriving team culture in your workplace? Share with us and watch out for more resources on company culture during our ongoing culture code campaign that will run until February 2020!