Karmahack 2021 Recap: What Makes a Good Hackathon?

In 2017, Credit Karma launched Karmahack, its first-ever hackathon. The event brought together more than 100 employees from across the business to develop the most compelling product concept within 72 hours. 

This was a time of rapid growth for Credit Karma. We had just launched internationally, expanded into new business verticals, and had grown our user base to more than 75 million members. At the same time, we were competing for talent with some of the biggest names in tech and looking to build a culture of innovation that could attract top engineers. To do so, we knew we needed to foster innovation from within, leading to the inception of Karmahack, a collaborative forum where employees could come together, exchange ideas and solve problems through technology. What started as a trial run has evolved into an annual tradition, and one of Credit Karma’s most anticipated events of the year.

“Karmahack is all about community,” said Krispy Uccello, Sr.SWE L2 and organizer of Karmahack. “In a sense, we all work together, we share the same space, but not always the same mindshare. Karmahack unites diverse perspectives and ideas from a collection of Karmanauts who are passionate about solving problems beyond their day-to-day work responsibilities.”

In October, Credit Karma hosted its fourth annual Karmahack, held virtually. While this year’s event looked different than previous years, spirit did not waver as 164 Karmanauts from across the globe banded together virtually to ideate, build and inspire through product development. This year brought forth 22 innovations that incorporated four key themes: velocity, automation, integrations and security.

What makes a good hackathon? 

As we wrap this year’s Karmahack and reflect on past events, some learnings stand out. Here are a few factors to consider when planning a hackathon: 

Be agile, but have a plan

Sufficient preparation goes into supporting a large-scale event like a hackathon. While you should strive to create a fun, laidback environment for participants, having processes in place eliminates potential chaos or confusion. Have a Plan B, but more importantly, have lieutenants you can lean on for support. For example, some of our judges had conflicts arise just before the event, but we had backups that we were able to sub in immediately. We also ran into livestream issues on Google Meet, but designated members on our IT and A/V teams addressed these issues quickly. 

Foster creativity 

Generally, engineers build with guardrails in place to maintain product quality and security. While these are imperative principles to adhere to when building an application used by millions of people, it doesn’t always allow for creativity to prosper. A hackathon should enable technologists to break away from typical constraints they’re used to building within, while providing a low-risk environment that encourages ideas and passions to flourish. 

Hackathons are for everyone

It’s often assumed hackathons are reserved for engineers, but some of the most interesting projects conceived from Karmahacks were spearheaded by Karmanauts in non-technical roles. Encouraging employees in other organizations to get involved creates an inclusive culture, which can provide immense value for the business. This is especially true for product-driven companies, as diverse perspectives yield better, more inclusive products for consumers.

Get new employees involved 

Joining a hackathon might be intimidating for a new hire. That’s why it’s important to have a plan in place for how you and other members of your team will recruit new employees to sign up. This will give new members visibility and internal networking opportunities, while also bringing fresh perspectives and ways of thinking from which the team can benefit. 

Learn and iterate

You won’t get everything right the first time. Collect feedback from participants. Learn from that feedback, adjust and iterate. It took us four years to come up with a community voting process that we felt eliminated potential voting bias, and that’s okay because it got us to a solution that we will continue to use. 

What’s your hackathon differentiator? 

How does your hackathon stand out from others? What makes your company’s culture different and how does that show up in your event? 

“Karmahack has a very friendly and collaborative vibe,” said Uccello. “Not to say it isn’t intense – participants are putting in long hours and there is a competitive spirit to it, but there are no monetary incentives for winners and we still get an amazing turn out every year.” 

One might say the best things about Karmahack, particularly collaboration, passion and outside-of-the-box thinking has bled into product development at Credit Karma. Karmahack is a volunteer-based event where employees can build things they are passionate about, often trying to solve widespread issues that exist in the real world. This approach to product development has carried over to a number of internal volunteer-led initiatives to tackle social and economic issues exacerbated by the pandemic, including  Relief Roadmap and Voter Roadmap

“The thinking and ideas that emerge from Karmahack have a strong cultural and business-oriented effect,” said Uccello. Over the years, several of these innovations have influenced product development at Credit Karma.”

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