Martyn Davies, SendGrid: “Creative spirit can only be fostered in teams that are given time and space to be truly creative”

Hackathons. We all love them not just for the pizzas and Red Bulls but for the fun of being together and just work on an idea. And they are an important tool for building a startup and even as an internal tool to boost a company.

Martyn Davies, Developer Evangelist at SendGrid (EMEA), creative developer, product manager, technical consultant and experienced hack day organiser, explained us how this type of events can influence even the internal product development cycle of a company like SendGrid.

Martyn is also a serial mentor on many accelerator programmes throughout Europe as well as working directly advising many startups at early, sharing his knowledge on building tech products with early-stage startups.

SendGrid is the world’s largest Email Infrastructure as a Service provider. Their email delivery service moves 2% of the world’s non-spam email (over 14 billion emails/month) for more than 180,000 companies including technology leaders like Pinterest, Spotify, and Uber.

How to Web: You’ve organized hackathons all around the world: what is the main motivation that people have to participate in these events?

Martyn Davies: Motivation varies, but most people I speak to go to hackathons to learn something new, or to spend time experimenting with a technology they are interested in. It’s a break from the normal and a chance to dig in and be around a room full of people who can help you learn something, and solve problems. I think they’re a great environment for education, at all levels.

How can hackathons impact a startup’s evolution?

Some startups begin at hackathons, I’ve seen it happen. Folks either meet their eventual co-founders, or the idea that gets built during the hackathon sparks the beginning of something bigger that becomes a startup.

Once you’re up and running, I think a hackathon mentality is key to discovering what features you’ll develop into the product next. Yes, you need proper product focus, but if you can afford it, taking time to just hack on something else, or new tech, or play around with the start of an idea is very freeing from the day to day.

It breaks the cycle to a degree that allows a developer and a product team to think wider than they might have been for the previous 3 weeks. Your next 4 feature implementations could be radically changed by spending a day hacking around with the basic concepts.

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When do you believe hackathons could be very useful in a product’s development cycle?

Always. For existing products, they are superb for product feedback. At SendGrid we get lots of direct feedback from developers using our API right in the room that we can speak to our product team directly about and that has tremendous value for us.

For teams building out a product, it’s also the ultimate testing ground, developers of all skills and experiences are in the room and you can ask them questions. You also get to see how they react to every aspect of your product – note it all down!

What do you need in order to organize a hackathon?

A room, a date, a decent internet connection and something to eat. It can be that simple. Get all that and then invite people along. Don’t over think it. They don’t need to be super shiny, over produced events, and you don’t need to have prizes. Just put nice people in a room building things with cool tech. If you can get some representatives of new and shiny technology down to work with people during the event, even better.

How do you use internal hackathons at Sendgrid?

We did our first earlier this year and it was a great event with a mix of staff from across the company. It was a great opportunity to show the rest of the company how our Developer Relations team actually works and for those that participated a break from the norm both in terms of their job and how they could approach a problem – very free of constraint.

For some people it was their very first hackathon ever! It was great for product feedback, future API design, team building and most of all ideation – some great ideas came out of it.

You are Central Coordinator at Music Hack Day. What is it, what are its objectives and who takes part in it?

Music Hack Day started back in 2009 as a way of getting all of the great music API and data companies, such as Songkick, and The Echonest, in a room and let people build stuff with them for 24 hours. Then we get the not very responsive to tech music industry down to see the ideas and hopefully take away some inspiration as to what could be achieved with this kind of emerging technologies in their industry.

It was a great success and now more than five years later the event still happens, somewhere in the world, each month. There have been over 60 of them now, with thousands of developers building thousands of ideas.

The objective has never changed. It’s 24 hours to build something awesome that combines music and technology in any way. All kinds of people take part, from software engineers, to musicians and artists.

How can the creative spirit be fostered in a technical team?

Creative spirit can only be fostered in teams that are given time and space to be truly creative. I’ve been a fan of the ‘20% time’ that Google introduced to give people time to work on anything they want and I’ve seen it implemented at other companies to great effect.

If you ignore the Google bit and the title itself, it’s just ‘giving people in your company time to think for themselves and do something they are interested in’. I think every company, not just tech companies, can benefit from this thinking.

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Can hackathons be a way of creating a startup’s company culture? Can you provide some examples to this extent?

They could be. I know of companies that have a very ‘hackathon’ like approach to their product development – MakeShift in London would be one such example that starts this way then builds out from there.

Also, We Make Awesome Sh have several products that have come from team members hacking together. You can create a company culture around a hackathon mentality, but whether it’s sustainable is up to the company and their people.

How do you believe that the concept of hackathon will evolve in the coming years and how will it continue to impact tech companies, big and small, around the world?

Yes, they have to, but I often wonder if a devolution would be better – bringing things back to simply a few people in a room playing with interesting tech, no big prizes, no ‘pitches’, just creativity in a nice environment.

More recently I’ve seen a rise in the amount of ‘speed hacks’ happening. Their concept is that several challenges are set, both tech and non tech, and each challenge has points available. Teams form and try to complete as many challenges as possible in the time they have, at the end, the team with the most points wins. Very quick, very fun, and quite a different way to approach this kind of developer event.

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