Beyond Boundaries: What we built, learned, and shared during our latest hackathon

Beyond Boundaries: What we built, learned, and shared during our latest hackathon

Rick Fillion by Rick Fillion on

Last week was a hackathon week at 1Password. We take time twice a year to pause our normal day-to-day tasks and focus on exploration and learning. These hackathons are a great opportunity to work with different folks, exercise some different muscles, and have a great deal of fun in the process. I’d love to tell you more about our latest hackathon!

The hackathon’s theme was “Beyond Boundaries”, and it had a few broad categories for staff to choose from:

  • Shoot for the Moon. Pushing the boundaries of what 1Password can be.
  • Shifting Left. Innovations in the earlier steps in our daily workflows that have compounding effects in the later ones.
  • The Next Step. An incremental improvement in an existing feature, or a step toward something new.

We encourage everyone in our Tech, Product & Design departments to set aside work to participate in the event, and ask them to self-organize into teams and projects. This means that the hackathon projects aren’t defined by leadership – they’re entirely grass-roots driven.

We recommend folks work with others outside of their team, as this is a great way to meet others and learn from them. This can be a bit of a chicken and egg problem … how do folks know who to work with? Surely they won’t go knocking on a random person’s [virtual] door and say:

“Can we hack together?"

We solve this by having a centralized hackathon project idea list. If there’s something a member of staff really wants to work on, they put it up on the list and see if others gravitate towards it. People can work on any part of the product, meaning they aren’t constrained by the area they normally work on at 1Password. The project board lists the skill sets that would be useful for each project, including non-coding skills, which helps people more easily find a great project to contribute to.

For this hackathon, I personally deviated from our guidance a bit. I’ve recently created a new team, and it’s still in its forming stages, so I proposed that we use this opportunity to work closely together on a project. We added our project to the list and a few developers from other teams joined us because the project appealed to them.

Our hackathons are short. Or at least they feel short. It’s one of those things where any fixed period of time will feel too short as our dreams are always bigger than what the time will allow for. Our hackathons are effectively split into three parts:

  • Hack Hack Hack
  • Video Production & Sharing
  • Awards Ceremony

Hack Hack Hack

Naturally this is where we sit down and actually write our prototype. There really aren’t any limits here other than “fit into one of the broad categories.” The goal is certainly not to write code that will ship to production right away. Instead, we put a strong emphasis on creating a MVP of the concept.

We work hard to prove that our ideas are possible. Words like “hack-crimes” are uttered frequently as developers try to find the fastest way to demonstrate their idea, and folks commonly share their most heinous crimes with the rest of the team on Slack.

The actual output of our three days of hacking away is a video demo, so while we’re building we also need to plan and produce the final video.

Demo Video Production & Sharing

Of course, we all want to see what everyone else has built. We used to have each team present their project but as we’ve grown, so have the number of projects. So this approach has become unsustainable. Instead, each team is expected to create a demo video of their project, helping others understand the challenge that their project is targeting, and how it solves the problem.

The only constraint imposed: The video should last only two minutes.

The creativity that comes out of these videos is pretty amazing. Two minutes is simply not a lot of time, so everyone tries to find ways of cramming as much information as possible. And then there’s the production quality! I’m always blown away by the amazing videos that are produced. They’re inspiring, and just a little silly.

These videos are all due by the end of day three. For our latest hackathon, you better believe that I was up until midnight putting the final touches on ours. I was unlucky enough to have the video editing app I was using crash after two hours – and I hadn’t hit the save button. Was I ever thankful that it had auto-saved a few minutes prior to the crash!

Day four is when everyone is expected to watch the demo videos. Some teams create watch parties and view them all together.

Awards Ceremony

A little bit of friendly competition can make anything more fun. The hackathon organizers chose some judges for each category, and all of the participants voted on the “Bits Choice” award. On Friday we do a large call where the winners are announced.

Regardless of who wins awards, we all come out winning (and I don’t just say this because our team didn’t win). It’s a week where we get to set aside our normal routines and deliverables, and scratch whatever itch we may have. It’s amazing to see so many great ideas from so many different teams.

It’s also not uncommon for one or more of the hackathon projects to turn into full-fledged features after the fact. For example, the recently released Nearby Items came out of the last hackathon.

Let’s Share!

I’d love to share a few of the demo videos that have come out of the Beyond Boundaries hackathon. I want to emphasize that these projects do not necessarily represent our roadmap, and are a reflection of the ideas that individuals have, as opposed to the entire company.

First up we have 1PasswIRC, who aimed to answer the question: “What if we leveraged the End to End Encryption technology we had to power group chat within the app?”

Next is B5X Diagnostics Reports. B5X is what our Browser Extension is called internally, it’s by far the most popular way to use 1Password. This group decided to see how we could more easily get Diagnostics Reports from the app so that we could better support our users.

Lastly we have Webhooks For Item Updates. I love seeing integrations between 1Password and other services, and webhooks are a great way to enable that.

I hope you enjoyed the videos. If these hackathons sound like fun to you, consider joining our team!

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