Lessons Learned from SEP's Internal Startup Weekend

July 18, 2011

This past weekend, SEP held its first internal Startup Weekend event. Around 15 software engineers and a handful of business and marketing people spent their weekend building out product ideas, from pitching the concept to doing market research to coding prototypes.

Ten ideas were pitched and after voting, three teams were formed to work on the ideas receiving the most votes.

Overall, the vibe I got from talking with the participants throughout the event and after the final presentations was that it was fun and worthwhile event. While everything is still fresh in my mind, I wanted to share some lessons that I learned over the last 48 hours.

##People like to work on different things than in their day job From the first hour of the weekend (the Friday pitches), it was clear that people were definitely interested in working on something outside of their normal project realm. Most of SEP’s client work is in fields like embedded medical devices or enterprise data management applications, so it was fun to see people pitching Android apps, social network ideas and public facing SaaS products.

At the end of the weekend, comments like “I had no idea how image processing worked but now I do…and it’s pretty sweet!” helped me realize that variety, even for just a weekend, can help to re-invigorate one’s passion for programming and learning.

##Mixing up the teams is key We didn’t plan it this way, but it ended up that almost all of the teams members were working with people for the first time. As much as I would have liked to pick my own ‘dream team’ of people that I know I work well with, I think that working with new people had a greater benefit. Several people expressed how cool it was to learn from other team members, whether it be new tools and techniques or just how they approach a problem in general.

That quiet guy from that one project you’ve never worked on? Turns out he can crank out code and works really well with you. And he’s played around with node.js too! ;-)

Those developers-turned-managers? They’ll surprise you by hacking on code all weekend, they’ve still got it!

Even in a medium sized company like SEP, it’s still easy to put on blinders and only interact with your own project team. I know I’m not the most outgoing person so without mixing up the teams I might have missed out on meeting some awesome co-workers that were just across the hall from me this whole time.

##Define your goals ahead of time (and be realistic) Don’t feel bad about faking it. If you have to hand-wave over some aspect of your product (and all the teams did), it’s not the end of the world. Define clear goals that are independently achievable. If all your goals depend on being able to do X and that turns out to be really hard and you can’t get it working, then you can’t reach any of your goals.

Our team defined at least six key features for our product and then picked the top two and threw out the rest. By focusing on less, we were able to really flesh out those two features. If we tried to do it all, I predict we would have ended up with a bunch of half-working parts and nothing to demo.

It’s better to finish 100% of two features than to finish 50% of four.

##Find a method that works for your team Two teams spent Friday night doing detailed story maps, data modeling and user personas.

My team just brain dumped onto a whiteboard and tried to find something that stuck.

In the end, you have to figure out what is going to work for the style and personalities of the whole team. One team had hourly stand up meetings and one team used time boxing to ensure progress was being monitored and any roadblocks were taken care of.

I tried hard (maybe a bit too hard) to keep my team’s focus on what we could realistically get done; having done these kind of weekend events before and seeing the frustration from teams that get to Sunday and have nothing, I wanted to focus on finishing the core features and then working on ‘nice to haves’.

##The products may die but the spark lives on Going into the weekend, one of my goals for the event was to spark excitement about product development at SEP. There is often so much friction to working on something that it’s hard to get the momentum you need just to write that first line of code.

Setting aside a weekend just to Get Things Done really helped get us past that initial hurdle. Regardless of whether or not any of the projects live on past the weekend, I think the majority of participants had a positive experience and would be interested in working on a product team in the future.

##Not every engineer wants to be an entrepreneur At least for this inaugural event, I think that the engineers were more interesting in the ideas that were pitched as having cool or interesting technology instead of those focused on business viability. The ideas that I felt had the best chances of actually turning into profitable products ended up near the bottom of the list when everyone voted.

In hindsight, this was probably not such a terrible scenario. Engineers have to enjoy coming to events like this or else you aren’t going to get much turnout; people are giving up their weekends, so it might be unrealistic to expect them to focus on the business aspects.

In my Startup Weekend Tips & Tricks post, I gave an example of having one team member work on a marketing/sales website. No one was really interested in doing that once people started coding.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of finding the developers that are interested in that kind of stuff and getting them paired with people that have marketing and business development skills, but I was a little bummed that the business side of product development got overshadowed.

##Final thoughts To me, the weekend had the feel of a hackathon more than a ‘traditional’ startup weekend. When asked if it went as I had expected, I said it was different; not better or worse but it was just different. I had hopes that someone would come up with a great product that we couldn’t not start pursuing.

I’m not sure if that happened with this batch of ideas – my gut tells me “No” but what do I know, I’m just an engineer! I think we found some market opportunities but I don’t know if SEP is well positioned to capitalize on them.

I don’t know what the future of SEP startup weekends will be. The event may grow and evolve if we continue having them (which seems like a given after talking to everyone involved). But even if the focus doesn’t shift to a more business driven end goal, there is still tremendous value in getting co-workers together to work on cool projects and bond over 3AM debugging sessions.

Despite my criticality (and eternal pessimism), I had a fantastic time helping put together the event, thinking of ideas and being involved with my team (Go Team Shoeless!) throughout the weekend.

A big thanks to all those involved (you know who you are!) who helped turn a “Wouldn’t it be neat if…” rant during a book club discussion into a reality.

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