The Container Store

How “Hackathons” Jump-start Innovation

  • Sep 05, 2017
  • David Ayers, Senior Director of IT and Principal Enterprise Architect
How “Hackathons” Jump-start Innovation

Our Information Systems team at The Container Store recently held our first-ever “hackathon.” For those new to the term, a hackathon is an event where computer programmers, software developers, project managers, and other IT experts come together to collaborate on a short-term project. It’s an intensive but fun way to engage both our creativity and problem solving skills, and the resulting ideas and camaraderie have been tremendous.

Though the word “hacking” tends to bring up thoughts of black-hatted villains working to bring down systems all over the world, in this case it’s not nearly as nefarious as it sounds. For a little more perspective, this great article in the New Yorker gives a short history of the word “hack” and provides a better definition of what it can mean:

“A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.” 

The idea of the hackathon has been around for a while, but I was inspired by a TED talk by Dan Pink and thought that such an event would be a great benefit to our IS team. Our first hackathon was held in February and we had four teams participating:

  • Team “My Favorite Color is Bacon” worked on in-store product location software.
  • Team “Optional” worked on Apple Wallet/Passbook integration.
  • Team “Fixer Uppers” worked on improvements to an order processing tool.
  • Team “Bowler Derby” worked on a new cash management application.

Each team worked on their projects for 24 hours and presented the results to a panel of “TCS Celebrity” judges, who ultimately selected Team “Fixer Uppers” as the winners. Interestingly, the work that team “Bowler Derby” did on the cash scale actually came to fruition, and this functionality was rolled out into our stores last month. Many of the solutions devised by the other teams are also still in development, and they’ve immensely improved many of our projects.

After the event, we gathered feedback from all the participants and they were so enthusiastic that we decided to hold a 24-hour hackathon every two months. We’re also planning a one-week Hackathon toward the end of the year, which should give our teams the time to really dig into a problem and put a solution together. (Our Distribution Center has also had its own Hackathon, and they’ve benefitted greatly from its remarkable success.)

Here are some of the comments we’ve received from participants about the Hackathons:

  • “I loved seeing the creativity and collaboration. I loved seeing people present solutions to real issues, and knowing they were developed in 24 hours is amazing - very impressive!”
  • “Pooling skills to solve a problem was satisfying.”
  • “I liked the short timeframe and the pressure to create something inside that timeframe. I also enjoyed the teamwork on the project.”

As you can see, Hackathons give employees a chance to flex their creative muscles and work with folks they might not normally work with, resulting in a stronger and more flexible team. They also encourage innovative thinking—not just evolutionary ideas, but real out-of-left-field thinking! In the fast-paced world of retail, this is extremely important to maintaining a competitive edge. Plus, these events inspire not only the participants, but also the spectators. Whether your motivation is team-building or innovation, Hackathons are a terrific way to give your business a boost of creative energy!