January 22, 2016

Culture-builder: The history and the future of the Lookout Hackathon


Hackathons are in Lookout’s blood.

We first started holding Hackathons when we were a third of our size, aspiring to get the creative juice flowing across teams. Today, the Hackathon spans two-days in which employees leave the comfort of their teams and enter collaborations with new coworkers, serving in new roles. An engineer may become a product manager; a designer may use their skills in web development, all building awesome projects that oftentimes really do end up in Lookout’s products.

It’s one of our favorite times of year and this year, we wanted to highlight our Hackathon leaders: Namhee Koo, our current Hackathon coordinator, and David Richardson, the guy who started it all 4 years ago.

Hear from them why the hackathon is so key to Lookout’s culture, where it’s headed, and all the goofy stuff in between:

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 9.01.42 PMDavid Richardson

Principal Product Manager by day, Hackathon Founder by night

Why was the Hackathon started?

Sometimes a company is blessed to have many ideas and not enough people to execute on them. You have to pick your battles and decide which projects to prioritize, but the Hackathon lets you dip your toe in the 20 different projects. So, we started the Hackathon to energize our employees and coworkers to try out some of those projects that don’t make it to the roadmap. You’re going to learn that some of the things you thought were hard are actually easy and some of the things you thought were easy are hard. It also gives us a chance to break out of the routine and make some people’s jaws drop. Every feature that we’ve launched in the last three years has been influenced by a Hackathon project in some way. I think the Hackathons have been extremely successful in that regard.

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Co-founder and CTO Kevin Mahaffey teaches a group of Hackathoners how to make great project presentations

You ran the Hackathon for many years. Why are they important?

The most important thing about a Hackathon is the learning that happens during it. It takes a variety of different forms. First off, a lot of people work with folks they haven’t worked with in their everyday roles. There’s a lot of learning about your coworkers that takes place during a Hackathon. You also might take on a new role, filling a job function you might not normally do. It helps the company as a whole learn what’s possible and what secret talents we have. We push personal boundaries, but we also push technical boundaries. We explore the fringes of iOS, Android, Web and the fringes of what we can do with our products. It’s a great way to probe out in a bunch of different directions and find out what feels right for the company.

What’s one of your favorite Hackathon projects?

Signal Flare, that’s one of my favorite projects because it was so great at addressing a real customer pain point that we quickly integrated it into our product. Signal Flare is able to tell when your phone is about to die and email you the last known location of the phone when it does. It was great because it took a hard look at the product we had at the time and said, “There’s a problem here.” The problem we had was that if a Lookout user’s battery was dead she couldn’t locate her device. Signal Flare was a simple, actionable answer to that problem. We could have done all these sorts of crazy things to try and locate a device without power, but we realized that we can help get people that information right before their battery dies. It was a great project.

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 9.01.24 PMNamhee Koo

Head of Design by day, Hackathon Organizer by night

Why is the Hackathon vital to Lookout’s success as a business?

Hackathons really cultivate the culture of innovation at Lookout. I think it’s really important for people to have some time outside their core responsibilities and do something different. You get to work with people you don’t know, focus on a problem you’re passionate about solving. It energizes people and, I think, makes employees more creative in their core responsibilities as well. It’s similar to travel, in a way. You go to a different place, learn new things. It awakens all the senses and you have new perspective; it stimulates.

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VP of Consumer Product Sachin Kansal gets in on the action, drawing the Hackathon theme logo in our main common space

Where do you see the Hackathon going in the future?

What we really focused on this year was bringing the Hackathon to our other offices. It added a lot more complexity to the planning and logistics, but I think we were very successful. In the future, we’ll definitely be continuing the participation from other offices as we expand. The cross-functional participation is really impressive, but it’s also something we can do better. It’s easy to think hacking is for engineers only, but anyone can do it. I’d love to see more projects in the future that focus on hacking our culture or our processes. I also want to make sure we pay attention to these projects after the Hackathon, continuing to develop them. I know Lookout has a great track record of building and launching ideas born in Hackathons, and as our company continues to grow and execute rigorous roadmap planning, I want us to keep these Hackathon projects top of mind.

This was your first year running the Hackathon. What were you impressed by?

I’m very impressed with the level of participation. Everyone was really involved and super passionate about it. I’m also very impressed with the problem spaces people picked as well. They were all very relevant, meaningful, interesting, challenging problems and the overall thoughtfulness and creativity really blew me away. I haven’t seen this in a lot of other companies. I hope we can continue bringing some of these ideas to life in our products!

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