Engineering Blog

Cardboard Houses: Managing your sales team’s expectations when running a Hackathon

tl;dr

Mediating the conversation between the sales and technical teams can be complicated. I explained what we were trying to achieve in our Hackathon using a metaphor.


As we get ready to organize our Huddle Hackathon 2015, I’ve dug out a few thoughts I’d written down at this time last year.

The hackathon date had been set, the idea well sold to the rest of the business, everyone was pitching their ideas in great videos, the devs had been (re)introduced via the Meet the Hackers series, and everyone knew what to expect. Or so I thought.

During a half-asleep Huddle Breakfast conversation, a salesperson asked me eagerly when a specific hack would be ready to sell to her prospect. She, like most people, had difficulty distinguishing a hack from the finished thing. After all, if it looks like a duck… I realised I hadn’t taken enough time to set her expectations, or anyone else’s.

The typical product/sales tango – when will this be ready; when can I sell this; if we don’t have this feature our product is doomed and we will never sell again – was creeping into the hackathon spirit, which is not at all surprising. If half of your income came from the deals you closed, you too would be looking for new shiny things to sell all the time. My challenge was to explain what a hack is, what the point of a hackathon is (well, if they aren’t building something we can sell, they are wasting their time), without starting to tango myself (do not under any circumstance sell this; this is not ready yet; do not promise anything or any dates).

The difficulty is to make the distinction between production code and hacks, in a way that everyone will understand. Software being such an immaterial thing, it’s often difficult to tell the difference if all you see is the UI. In my presentation introducing our three-day Hackathon, I opted for a real world analogy and hoped for the best.

“This is a house. It has solid foundations, running water, electricity. It stands against the wind and the rain. It takes months to plan and even more to build. You cannot build a house in 3 days.

“Some of you might have guessed where I’m going with this.

“This is what you can build in three days. It might look like a house and it might be really tempting to sell it as a house. But in almost any circumstance in which you try to use it as a house, it falls apart.

“If you were to build a real house you might start by building loads of cardboard houses to help you imagine and explore what your real house would look like. That’s exactly what hacks are about: exploring what Huddle might be like in the future.

“The hacks you are about to see might be really impressive, and it might look like they are ready to give to customers tomorrow, but it’s important to remember that they are nothing more than cardboard houses.”

The term cardboard house became an office meme, with people continuing the analogy while talking about their hacks and others saying after the hack demo event that they were “very impressed with the quality of the cardboard houses”.

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