Recently, some of us at Source Allies had the opportunity to participate in the 8th annual dsmHack charity hackathon. We were struck by how much participating in the hack aligned with our core values. At Source Allies, we use our core values as guideposts while interacting with our partners and our fellow teammates.
Be a leader, be an expert, be an owner, and be a teacher.
On the evening of March 5, 2020, we spent several hours engaged in every introvert’s favorite pastime: introducing ourselves to dozens of strangers. Most conversations began according to the Midwest Nice playbook. “What’s your name? How has your day been? What do you do for work?” Many might call it small talk, but the conversations buzzed along with fervent haste. “Tell me about your nonprofit. What is the hackathon project?”
An array of sensory stimuli sprinkled the event hall. Upon entry, a bouquet of individual hand-sanitizers lay just past the registration desk (COVID-19 would become much more serious by the end of the month). From the other side of the room, a culinary spread offered a competing aroma to the clinical scent of hand-sanitizer. These two outposts framed the chaotic excitement of 11 nonprofits and over 100 volunteers attempting to participate in a self-directed, pseudo-speed-dating networking process.
Volunteers of dsmHack were given a name tag as they entered the event hall. Sheets of colored stickers provided an opportunity for volunteers to broadcast their expertise to the crowd. Add a blue sticker to your name tag if you have a developer background. Green for scrum master. Red for design work, and so on.
Certain colored stickers were noticeably missing. The color decoder had no entry for team lead, for example. Similarly, there were no color tiers differentiating between Developer I and Developer II. Though the stickers helped guide conversation, everyone ended up forming teams around the interests and knowledge of the participants. Titles need not apply.
Be a Leader: Lead Without Title
Possibly the most essential value at Sources Allies is leadership without title. It means not waiting for someone to nominate you to do something when you know it should be done. It means suggesting a path forward, even if you are not the most senior person in the room. It is also valuable while participating in dsmHack.
Over the course of a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants 48 hours, there is not time to go down a path if it is not the right one. The hack is also not the time to struggle on a problem by yourself for too long. When we hold and support each other, including the nonprofit, we are able to excel individually and as a team. We can do all this by leading without title.
During the onset of dsmHack, a fuzzy, chaotic excitement evolved into hard, concentrated energy by Saturday morning. Hans Zimmer would’ve been inspired by the rhythmic rustling of energy drinks and the harmony of coffee pouring into cups.
The organizers of dsmHack built it around a simple idea: given the proper environment, an assortment of motivated and capable individuals can build something of value for our community within a short period of time. One can marvel at everything that a group of 100+ volunteers can accomplish.
Be an Expert: Show Grit
"I may not know the answer, but I can figure out how to do it" is the attitude that helps us deliver quality products at Source Allies. It also defines project success at dsmHack. Whether that involves googling or surveying the room for someone with more experience, it most certainly is not throwing up your hands and saying "I don't know" or "I can't do that."
Participating in the hack also brings to light a question of "work-life balance." It is an exciting but exhausting experience. When working on something new and exciting like a dsmHack project, it's easy to burn out on the first day if you are not careful. We help each other remember that it is a marathon and not a sprint by encouraging frequent breaks, checking in with each other, and getting a proper amount of sleep.
It is the same with our client work at Source Allies. Our baseline for work is our full time schedule with the partners. Additional to this, we are encouraged to participate in the community by doing events like dsmHack, attending or presenting at user groups, and serving on Source Allies committees. If we aren't careful, we can easily burn out. Keeping an eye on the end goal and keeping yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy enough to reach it is important in both our client projects at Source Allies and with dsmHack.
It may take many people to move a mountain, but the dsmHack organization recognizes that a single individual wields the power to push things forward. It could be a grand gesture like restoring internet connectivity for the hackathon by dropping an ethernet cable out the window of a building (yes, that really happened at a previous hack). Or it could be a humble act like offering to help other teams while they have some downtime or need a break from their project.
This year, dsmHack introduced the Get Sh*t Done award. This is an award given to an individual in appreciation of their hard work. Everyone was encouraged to submit a nomination, which included a story or reason. At first, the nominations came in as a slow trickle, mostly from the hack organizers. By the end of the hackathon, participants were submitting a downpour of words inscribing generous acts.
We use Small Improvements within Source Allies as a tool to applaud and show recognition for our teammates when they exhibit one of our core values. It’s important to remember the human beings that underlie all the reason, logic, and process in our work. For dsmHack, the Get Sh*t Done award may have only been given to a single individual, but the flood of nominations signaled an aura of appreciation that filled the event hall.
Be a Teacher: Share Your Passion
At Source Allies, each of us brings our own set of skills and passions to the table. By sharing our passion, we are able to deliver quality products for our partners, akin to what each volunteer brings to their team at dsmHack. Even if the team is not working in your area of expertise, by sharing our passion we can learn and grow together, as we deliver the product for the nonprofit.
One thing that's for certain is that our experience at dsmHack is never what we expect it to be. It takes sharing our expertise as volunteers combined with the shared vision of the nonprofits to push through the noise (metaphorical and literal) to produce a great product. Volunteers have the opportunity to shine by sharing their knowledge and passion with others.
There were regular check-in meetings throughout the hackathon where a representative from each team would provide a status update. Much of the discussion focused on pacing with questions like, “how is everyone doing on time?”. When teams launched to work on Friday it was a rollercoaster of uncertainty. By that Saturday morning, however, every team was headed in the right direction with regards to time management. All that remained was the nagging but-what-if voice in the back of everyone’s head.
Teams began adding their final touches and started documenting the hand-off. The nonprofits would take over the projects at the end of the day. Nobody wanted to leave their nonprofit in a position where they were unable to maintain or update their solution.
Be an Owner: Ownership Mindset
While volunteers are not the owners of the products we make for our nonprofits, it is an ownership mindset that helps create stellar results. By crafting products from an ownership mindset, we are more in-tune with the user needs. We can do this by getting to know our users and by approaching our work as if we are the user. This applies both to participating in dsmHack and producing products for our partners.
Another important aspect to consider is maintainability. In interest of our partners’ long term success, we want to provide them with a solution that is sustainable. This is especially true at dsmHack as many of the non-profits might not have the tech capabilities or internal teams to change code or fix a deploy on their own.
Thursday evening was the culmination of the efforts by dsmHack organizers; the evening of March 7 was the culmination of ours. We had but 48 hours to organize ourselves into teams and complete a project that would elevate each nonprofit’s digital presence.
Ben and Michael, the authors of this blog and both consultants at Source Allies, had the pleasure of working on two different teams throughout dsmHack. Ben worked with Please Pass the Love, a nonprofit working to empower communities to provide mental health and wellness support for their students. His team created a Slack workspace and several custom Slack bots to provide a safe, open environment where students can connect.
Michael worked with One Heart Equestrian Therapy, a nonprofit using horses to offer therapeutic services to individuals demonstrating limitations and special needs. They worked on creating an informational app that volunteers can use to be prepared with the right horses and equipment needed for a volunteer event.
Time moves quickly when you’re anxious and excited. It was soon time to present. Each team was given 10 minutes to talk about their nonprofit and show off their project. It was an emotional time. There was relief in seeing that everything worked. There was awe in witnessing what other teams managed to put together. There was joy in seeing the reactions of the nonprofits, and there were tears of pride in knowing what an incredible impact each project would have on the community.