How To Raise the Morale of a Remote Team
Read this post about organizing a hackathon for an IT company during the COVID pandemic. The game was about Linux administration, troubleshooting, and testing skills.
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Long story short, in order to raise the morale of a remote team, let them shift attention away from routine tasks and have some fun. We as a team are what we do. That is why we should do something interesting altogether. Remote work is not a blocker.
This is a story of how I organized a hackathon for an IT company located in Malaysia during the first several months of the COVID pandemic. The game was all about Linux administration, troubleshooting, and penetration testing skills. Essentially it gave room to participate to all employees: from juniors in tech support up to senior solution architects.
If you are not one who loves storytelling format, please feel free to jump to the last chapter. It contains key success factors for a good hackathon.
What we had:
- A system integrator company based in Kuala Lumpur
- An international team of IT specialists
- 99.99% of the team had to start working remotely by legal force
- Let employees shift attention from work and relieve stress
- Upskill them in a game format
- Create an internal brand for future IT games
What Were the Complexities?
Unequal Qualification of Potential Participants
Among the team, we would find both true Linux experts and newbies getting scarred by the command line. We indeed wanted all of them to take part. Logically, the tasks in hackathons must be ascending in terms of complexity.
Shift Work and Schedules
Different teams work at completely different times, including night shifts. Based on this, a hackathon cannot be pinned to an exact time frame.
You should get adopted to local peculiarities. The biggest part of the staff had Malay, Chinese or Indian roots. Unfortunately, they mostly do not have a habit to ask questions or participate in something new and yet unknown. Once a week 80% of the staff leaves the office for 2.5 hours for religious reasons. Corporate events are well attended, if you do a lottery with fancy loot in it only. You really have a hard time getting this type of people interested and engaged.
Spoiler alert – I made it =)
I call it “remote work-force”. At the epidemic start (February in Malaysia) we had to work remotely, and this happened not based on goodwill. Particular employees and entire departments had really hard times adapting to the new reality. Many of us had no idea how could we have even more “work” in these circumstances.
An additional important thing to note is that the beforementioned inequity in skills was raising the high demand to live face-to-face collaboration on the floor. An opportunity just to come with your issue or question to a more senior colleague was more than valuable especially for newly hired. It seems that it is as easy as just type in your question in a corporate chat room, but it turned to be just one more “remote work barrier” to most part of the crew.
We started this initiative to motivate people to reach new highs. How could you do that considering high demotivation caused by rapid obstacle change, absence of live collaboration, and unexpected work barriers?
There was a chance that people would simply refuse to participate, considering hackathons as just extra work. If you do Linux all day alone this cannot be fun, right?
Wrong! We reached the audience.
Hackathon Preparation Plan
The sequence of steps below can just be simply understood as your plan to prepare a hackathon in your own environment. In my case, completing all these actions led to success.
Crafting the Concept
I chose Linux administration as the main hackathon theme. Thus, all the tasks must lie around basic administrative topics: using CLI, browser developer tools, SQL, DNS, and encryption basics.
The Hackathon was planned to last for several days, hence why I decided to use the system of game levels and codes. Each level is just a virtual machine you simply log into. A virtual machine contains a code. This code can be used to find the way to the next level. Each server has Apache on board with a simple static website with clues. Or without them =)
For instance, one of the first game levels had a username and base64-encoded password. You might say it is too easy, but there were additional quests inside of each server. Moreover, the next levels became more and more advanced demanding more complex actions and not always obvious steps to succeed.
The code that you get on each of the levels should be validated against the special form. Form’s task is to validate the code and provide the next-level DNS name.
Right on this step the system of benefits was decided:
- Top-3 players get the most valuable prizes
- Top-10 players get special prize packs
- Top 50 players get guaranteed prizes from a cheap price range
Top-3 participants get all from all 3 categories.
I should mention the goal of this article is not to dive deep into the technical aspects of this very hackathon. Let me describe the main aspects only.
AWS was chosen as the hosting platform. Game servers and a web-form host were based on t2.medium EC2 instances. Each instance had a free domain assigned. For database, we ran DynamoDB. Webform which was built on Python and Flusk framework. Web-form backend was developed based on Function as a Service model using the chain of API Gateway + Lambda + DynamoDB.
Considering ITIL’s “start where you are” principle, we just re-used our corporate AWS subscription. As the code baseline, we re-used our ticket submission form’s code with slight re-work. I would also like to pay credits to Alex and Sasha who helped me with AWS and coding. That would have been way more difficult without your aid. Thank you!
Concept Presentation and Budgeting
Our leadership already had a quite clear understanding that our NY corporate event is not going to happen. That’s why the budget for the game was approved quite quickly. They simply approved the most expensive option from 3 options (in terms of total spending).
Graphic Design and Look’n’Feel
First, I decided on the brand name and decided color palette. Luckily, we had a corporate graphic designer who helped to prepare several logo options. The final logo in white, black, and colored view was used for communication and prints on the prizes.
All the materials were built in a single style and branded with the same game logo. Recently, when I started the second hackathon under the same brand, I had no questions like “what is going on”. The engineers knew exactly what to expect.
Choose and Acquire Prizes
I can write a separate long read about making a business in Malaysia. In this article, I just want to mention that it took 2 months of time to make purchases. Dealing with local businesses is never an easy task.
Sending prizes out had to happen significantly later than the game end. A part of them had to fly out to Russia or the Philippines following their winners.
Before the event, I sent out several teasing messages to our company division's global email address. These messages looked close to spam with lots of special characters, broken alignment, and allusions instead of straight speech inside. Colleagues got curious as to whether my mail account was hacked. Our virtual office was full of buzz and that was exactly what I needed.
The game followed an unobtrusive story in a detective style. It did not really influence either game rules or players' behavior. You just received an unexpected message from a “colleague”., learning that he disappeared with strange obstacles around. Your goal was to find him.
To achieve this, you had 2 links: a fake Facebook profile of the guy, and a link to the first game level. “Facebook page” contained a part of the password you had to add to any password piece you find next. You obviously had no chance to get access to any server without this clue.
The first message we sent to the entire office contained the beginning of the story, links and rules. I immediately got overwhelmed with questions: some asked for clues, tried to clarify whether they got rules correctly, and tried to fish out some useful information. They didn’t succeed.
Element of Learning
One of the main goals was to teach people something new. To achieve this, I started to send out solutions for levels starting from the second day of the game. On the second day, I gave answers for the first level, on eights – for seventh.
Virtual machines were left to run several days more after the game end. Therefore, everyone had a chance to go through the game having all the clues from me.
Do the Follow-Up
Ongoing and timely communication was indeed one of the most valuable parts. Each day I was sending a report with a leaderboard, kudos, and tried to motivate those who are yet at the bottom of the board. Up through the last days, we had new players joining. I believe the continuous communications helped.
Send Loot Out
Because of Malaysian lockdowns, I managed to send prizes timely to the Top-3 players only. The rest had to wait for their prizes longer. Regardless of inexpensive prizes, employees were indeed happy to finally get them.
Funny to say, but these prizes worked well as a motivation for some of the participants. One of our Philippines-located players asked whether he could receive his prize pack even after resigning from the company. Well, yes, we sent his prize as well.
Get the Feedback
Progress iteratively with feedback, right? All the participants received the survey, and 25% responded. You can find their responses at the end of the article.
All the preparation took 2 months and 68 man-hours of me, but it was worth it!
The Mood Was Clearly Improved
Game format presumed individual participation; however, I know for sure that some were utilizing conference calls, making teams and collectively brainstorming. One who engaged did not get bored for sure. People who did not manage to pass over several first levels indeed learned some new things. The goal to shift the attention and decrease the temperature was clearly achieved.
One of the factors clearly speaking about the success of the event was participation of some “heavy lifters”. Experienced engineers, juniors and even managers who do not work with Linux daily took part.
The 3 most frequent reasons to take part based on the surveys were:
- Opportunity to test your skills
- Addiction to games and competitions
100% of players who responded to the survey were satisfied with the event. They all expressed the will to participate again in the future, and many of them suggested ideas about future game topics and tasks.
Freeway and Budget Confirmation for Future Events From Management
In light of the happy response from the leadership team, we now have timelines to organize the next one. Receiving the budget approval was even simpler this time than the previous time.
What did I gain personally? The answer is: experience, lots of fun, and a willingness to do hackathons (including commercial ones). I now have ideas about future games and resources to make them into reality.
Let me formulate key principles of a successful hackathon:
Know Your Audience
A good hackathon is one built for your team and one which responds to your business demand. Yes, hackathons are not only for developers, they are for any kind of occupation.
Any communication about the upcoming game must differ from a common daily flow of emails you get. It must fuel the interest and keep it warm enough. Find the right balance! If you overheat it, then your communications will be treated as spam and efforts will be wasted. If you agitate people well, but do so too early, your initiative will get forgotten in the daily routine.
The game should not be a case for a couple of hours. Do your best in assessing your team skillset properly so each and every participant has his own room. The idea of growing the difficulty step by step works the best.
Prizes Are Good, but Are Not the Point
Don’t stress on material prizes. It was clearly communicated that they were part of the game. However, no one knew what exactly would be given. The goal is not in getting something like a new fancy backpack. The whole point of the story is to build communications, learn more and have fun along the way.
If you gift something, do brand it in a game brand, not the corporate one. Ideally, create an internal brand for future events. Another backpack in a corporate style will be just “from the company”, and will not be associated with having a great time during the hackathon. If you word things right and each and every detail is branded in the game style, it will be remembered better. Don’t worry, necessary mind connection between the game brand and corporate brand will also be there.
Published at DZone with permission of Vladislav Chepiga. See the original article here.
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