Software engineers from the HealthcareSource HackathonGetting your software engineers as close to the client as possible is a fundamental tenant of agile software development. The more engineers get to know and understand customers, the more passionate they can become about their work. Like many software companies, we’ve tried a variety of techniques to achieve this level of understanding: visiting with clients, participating in sales demos, joining focus group conference calls, and more. But I’ve always thought an ideal way to establish and grow this connection would be to leverage Talent Symposium, our annual user conference. After all, what better place to interact with hundreds of clients from dozens of healthcare organizations over just a few days?

But how do we address the concern that taking engineers off their work routine would impact product development? What if we could get engineers to interact with clients and develop new features at the same time? As a product management leader, how can I encourage these sorts of important interactions?

I worked with my colleagues in marketing, sales, and engineering, and our brainstorming led us to try the hackathon concept, or rapid on-site feature development, at our Talent Symposium. The HeathcareSource Hackathon was born.

Making the Hackathon Happen

Engineering was excited by the challenge, and we in product management wanted to make sure our clients would get impactful features. We surveyed attendees for their wish list of enhancements and then reviewed the results against our backlog to choose three options for each product that would be achievable in two to three days while also appealing to as many clients as possible.

Conference attendees loved being able to vote from their phones and watch the votes tally for their favorite feature on the screen. Cheers and applause erupted as the feature for each product was locked in. I even heard clients say, “Any of those would be fantastic. I can’t wait to see if they get them done.”

The Developers Got to Work

Customers engaging with engineers during the HackathonNow it was in the hands of our talented developers, who got to work in our product demonstration area. Clients could come in and see how the work was progressing and provide real-time feedback.

Client after client mentioned to me how much they enjoyed the voting and how nice it was to see a company so engaged with its users. “Who does this for their clients?” was my favorite quote from a partner who couldn’t believe we were trying to build client-selected features right on site.

I watched as users engaged with developers, impressed as the seemingly endless lines of code turned into simple and efficient user experiences. And the engineers were in their element, talking with passion about what they do every day. They truly enjoyed the appreciation and understanding of how even small improvements could make a big difference in our clients’ lives.

The Results

Did we deliver? It was down to the wire in the pre-dawn hours of the last day of Talent Symposium as we gathered the results of the Hackathon into slides to review at the closing remarks.

Attendees at that final session cheered and applauded louder and louder as each completed feature was reviewed (we’ll be sharing the details in next week’s product release notes). And when it was announced that the team had over-delivered and completed a fourth feature as well, the ovation was powerful.  Unfortunately, most of our developers had to fly out early and missed this final moment, but the one who was able to stay was clearly touched.

In the end, we got four enhancements removed from the backlog in two days. And while that alone is exciting, had no features been completed, the hackathon still would have been a success. Clients engaged directly with the engineering team, which was a unique and valuable experience for all involved. They left the event with new insights through a better understanding of each others’ passions and challenges. We couldn’t have been more pleased with the results of our first Talent Symposium Hackathon, and we fully expect this to become a regular part of our annual event.

For other product management and development leaders who are trying to find ways to get their engineers closer to customers, I can say that it is an invaluable experience. Working with other departments and creating some controlled scenarios that work toward your goals can allow such endeavors to be a win on multiple fronts.


Russ Wakelin

About Russ Wakelin

Russ Wakelin is the Vice President of Product Management for HealthcareSource. He leads the our product management group and is responsible for strategic vision, prioritization, and continuous feedback. He has led teams that design and deliver software solutions for over 25 years and has developed a passion for leveraging analytics to optimize workflows. Prior to HealthcareSource, Russ worked in a variety of highly regulated industries tackling complex problems such as utility usage and billing, vehicle registration for municipal and state governments, and submarine maintenance for IBM and the U.S. Navy.