Hackathons, blogs, 'beer and learns': How 5 engineering teams stay creative

by Justine Hofherr
March 7, 2018

To make a startup successful, you need an all-star engineering team that can juggle learning (and implementing) new technologies while staying on top of the industry’s latest trends.

But all of that work can leave little time for creativity. That’s why a number of Boston tech companies are making major efforts to give their developers room to grow, play and bond over a little beer now and then. Here, five engineering teams share what keeps them inspired.

 

markforged
Photo via Markforged

David Benhaim, CTO at Markforged, said every Friday, their engineers are encouraged to showcase the cool things they’ve made using the company’s 3D printers. In the past, this has included car parts, robots and rib cages...for crash test dummies.

Describe your engineering team in three words.

Full-stack engineering. The engineering team at Markforged has to examine the complete range of engineering problems and navigate multiple disciplines, including software, hardware, electrical engineering and material sciences. 3D printing generates immensely difficult challenges, so we have to be able to move quickly and adapt on a daily basis.

What are some different ways your engineering team stays innovative?

One of the first things Markforged did was bring the agile mentality of the software development world to actual hardware development. Our printers allow us to iterate and prototype rapidly. Our customers play a significant role in helping us stay innovative. We surface all kinds of innovation and product ideas through speaking to our customers and learning about the kind of innovation they want to achieve. There are thousands of people all over the world using Markforged machines every day and we love hearing about what they’re building.

In fact, every Friday we host what we call “Part of the Week,” which is a company event during which our engineers showcase projects they’ve been working on. Many of our engineers have side projects using Markforged tech — printing parts for vehicles they’re repairing, fixtures for their machine shops or even robots — so this Friday happy hour gives these team members the opportunity to show the rest of the company what they’ve accomplished.

We also commonly present unique customer stories. One of my favorite stories from these gatherings was when one of our engineers printed a rib cage for a crash test dummy! Each day we learn more about what’s possible using our technology.

 

datarobot
Photo via DataRobot

Tim Young, VP of marketing at DataRobot, said they host frequent fly-ins, during which their global tech team can meet up at engineering offices in tech centers like Kiev and Singapore.

Describe your engineering team in three words.

Empowered, ambitious and supportive.

What are some different ways your engineering team stays innovative?

We encourage all engineers to be scientific and empower them to make decisions (and even make mistakes) that will move our technology forward. We keep our organization open by removing management layers, which encourages collaboration across all projects and teams.

We hold weekly tech talks on new tools and technologies, how our application works, and how we solved the toughest bugs. We also host monthly hackathons, which give our team an incentive to deploy new ideas into production. Finally, we host global fly-ins and meetups across the world in engineering centers like Boston, Kiev and Singapore.

 

mendix
Photo via Mendix

Josh Waldman, director of professional services at Mendix, said his engineers stay abreast of the latest tech trends with “Beer and Learns,” which take place each Friday. Beverages optional.

Describe your engineering team in three words.

Curious. Collaborative. Customer-obsessed.

What are some different ways your engineering team stays innovative?

We have a variety of ways we work to stay innovative, one of which is referred to as “Beer and Learns”. On Fridays, everyone on the team comes together to share a highlight from a project they are working on. Team members may share anything from a challenge they’re facing, a project success or an observation to soundboard with the team. Additionally, we have a planned presentation for someone on the team to teach the rest of the team something new. The focus of these training sessions can be a new technology, a challenge they solved for a customer, a learning from a course they attended, or an article they read.

In addition to these team gatherings, we encourage team members to choose a project to work on something that combines our technology with something they want to learn, but might not have obvious enterprise applications. This gives each team member an opportunity to take on a new project independently and explore something that is of interest to them in their career. As part of the project, they are required to submit a post for the “Tinker Time Blogs” about their experience. This helps each person articulate exactly what they learned so they can reference it later. It’s also a great way to share and inspire our community of developers of what’s possible with our technology.

 

smartsheet
Photo via Smartsheet

Senior Smartsheet Engineer Tom Flaherty shares how Smartsheet’s tech squad stays fresh.

Describe your engineering team in three words.

Smart, friendly and professional.

What are some different ways your engineering team stays innovative?  

Hackathons, and we’re encouraged to continue our education, peer-review ideas, and try new approaches at work.

 

panorama education
Photo via Panorama Education

Freddie Montgomery, talent recruiter at Panorama Education, said hackathons keep their engineers’ creative juices flowing.

Describe your engineering team in three words.

I asked the team and, being fun and facetious, they said, “obvi agile, agile and agile," but when they finally piped down and got serious, they agreed on, "responsive, collaborative and reflective." I agree with that 100 percent.

How does your engineering team stay innovative?

One of our most salient values is going for the “moonshot” in education, so innovation is constantly top-of-mind! One way we make sure that happens is through our "lunchineering," which allows for a teammate to spend 20 to 30 minutes presenting on a topic they're passionate about. Those topics can range from "generative adversarial neural networks for image manipulation” to “let’s talk about this engineering book that I'm reading.”

Outside of that, we do a panorama hackathon during which we spend the day in small groups, actively creating, coding and designing new (and fun!) projects that could become actual features used by educators.

 

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