Healing from toxic hackathon culture

I work for email marketing company Campaign Monitor, where I have been working for over six years, and few times a year we have a hackathon-style day called Change Day. Others might refer to it as “Ship it day” or some other term that suggests you try to create something over a short period of time – something that brings value to the product or to the company culture. You often get to work with people you don’t get the opportunity to work with on a daily basis.

Now, on the surface, this all sounds like fun and games, and people dig it. Sometimes the event is made more fun with free pizza and snacks, or trivia, or something to keep people motivated. (It’s a little bit different in lockdown or when working from home, though.) But it’s not really for me. I actively avoided such hackathon-style events because they put unhealthy, uncomfortable practices in front of me. Impostor syndrome from having no cool ideas to pitch. Impostor syndrome from deciding to join a team and working with other people who will probably realise you’re not the fantastic engineer you are made out to be. Sitting at your desk for hours on end with no breaks. Eating and snacking constantly while not taking a break. Disagreeing with people and finding yourself in confronting situations. Sleeping on the floor of the office trying to get work done. Heck, not sleeping at all.

Those elements are not true of every hackathon, but in the past, I worked for a company with a toxic “go hard or go home” type of culture, and some elements of the hackathon mentality were present in the day to day. I found myself traumatised by the notion of hackathons and fearing the potential expectations of others and the pressure to do something good.

I was nervous once I came up with an idea for Campaign Monitor’s last Change Day in 2021. I thought it would be fun, but I honestly just had a vague idea of how I might do it myself, fully expecting to do it on my own, and honestly hoping to not have to deal with people (being the introvert that I am, and all that). I shared the idea with the thought that people would think it was not valuable, so I was surprised by the response I received to people wanting to join my team. Well, folks, my idea was to create a dark mode for the product. I don’t need to go into specific reasons on why dark mode would be valuable – I mean, it’s everywhere. For some people it provides a better reading experience. It may be a bandwagon, but everyone is jumping on it.

I had six other people join me to do darkmode2k21: our designer Jocelyn; engineers Oliver, Liam, Clem, and Masoud; and our software engineering intern Jemma. I mean, that’s where the fun begins, but it’s also where the impostor syndrome begins. At the time, many of the people who joined my team had only joined the company in the past few months. And suddenly I had the role of leading and directing the group to help bring this dark mode idea to life. 🌛

I’ve written many a post about events I’ve organised or been a part of, like Devcamp 2019 and Devcamp 2020. I’ve written about what I’ve learned from web communities from public speaking, and about mentoring people and giving them opportunities. There is one thing in common about events like these, and the things I’ve learned throughout my career: people.

Give people space

After being pushed into a corner several times during my career, and being made to feel like I couldn’t speak up, it was the last thing I wanted for anyone on the team to feel. Especially for the new folks who saw Change Day as a positive opportunity. I felt responsible to create a positive environment.

I absolutely cannot stress how important it is to give people space. I don’t mean give them space if they need an emotional moment alone. I mean give them space all the time. Give them the space to grow, and the space to speak. Give them opportunities. Knowing that I had been with the company for such a long time and was working with people who were new, and maybe hadn’t had an opportunity to showcase their skills, Change Day was a great opportunity for them. It was not an opportunity for me to show off. There was no need for me to be in the limelight.

Since I work in a team that works across different teams and helps build tooling for engineers across the company, I had the opportunity to work with a couple of these people before. I had seen some of their skills, and I wanted them to feel that they could use their skills to contribute to this project. Most of all, I wanted other people to see what they were capable of. 🌻

I respected people and their time

At the beginning of Change Day, I took it upon myself to find a time in everyone’s calendars to meet on Zoom and chat and so that we could introduce ourselves. I wanted the team to get to know each other. Even though we formed this team with a common goal, it just felt a little bit sad if we didn’t at least have a meeting to say hi. We might not know each other, and maybe we will never work together again after this, and this whole thing can be seen as just a company event, but I felt that it was important to add an element of fun and to make it feel like everyone was included.

At this point I was still nervous as heck about running things. I wrote an agenda in the meeting because I wanted us to get off to a good start, so that we’d all leave the meeting understanding what we were to do. I didn’t want anyone to feel left out.

I gave everyone the opportunity to speak in the presentation

Even though this dark mode thing was my idea, and I stayed up late doing some work on it – again, I wanted to give everyone else the opportunity to present when it came to presentation time. So I only did the introduction. I didn’t pressure anyone to present, but I asked everyone in the team which part they might want to speak to.

I also feel that personally, I have spoken a lot in front of employees at the company, having given various demos, or spoken up in meetings, and even host our speaking program called Bread Talks (and have been since 2016, LOL). Everyone has heard from me. I don’t need to take up more space than I already have. I was fine to be in the background.

I didn’t tell people what to do. I didn’t want to.

Despite being asked by various members of the team what they should do or how they should do a thing, I didn’t tell them exactly what to do. I didn’t want to tell the designer how to design. I didn’t want to tell the engineers how to do their work. I was there for them, but I was not there to tell them what to do. I trusted them, and I wanted to indirectly communicate that I was not “the boss”.

I had an idea, but we were a team.

We all had our own thoughts, but these were shared and discussed. I knew that we all had our strengths in our roles in the company, and the team knew what to do. 🙂

And the winner is…

We didn’t win any awards, but that doesn’t matter. We brought the hype. 🕶️

We made use of the Zoom sunglasses filter in the presentation, and had a slide with all our profile photos with dark shades covering our eyes. We had amusing banter in our Slack channel when we communicated. We may not have won, but as one of our engineers, Masoud, said, “it was a big win for me anyway”.

Turning trauma into healing ❤️‍🩹

I don’t know what being a leader is, or means, and I certainly don’t think it’s some checklist of stuff. I know that being a leader isn’t being the loudest or the most prominent. The way I see it, if you tower over the people you lead and constantly tell them what to do – you will have less success than if you’re able to prepare them to be fine on their own or when you’re not around.

I also know that when you’ve gone through trauma, one of the last things you want is for the people around you to experience the same thing you have been through. I had the power to create a space where people felt welcome, heard, and appreciated, and that is what I tried my best to do.

It may not have been in a shippable state, but we learned a lot along the way, and I am proud of the team I worked with and am grateful that we turned my naïve dark mode idea into a reality. 🖤

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I am working on my masters in public history and I can 100% agree with the feeling of impostor syndrome because it’s rampant in my brain 150% of the time. I get it. I wish I had these internships that everyone else seems to, or some “let in” to the historical field, and I don’t. I’m just a former waitress with an ambition, and I totally get that sometimes your brain is your worst enemy, but obviously you’re doing something right!

I think by you having those feelings you already kind of knew what the newbies were experiencing, so honestly it seems like they couldn’t be in better hands during the event. Even though you may not have won any serious recognition, you helped the group with confidence. I’m pretty much 100% sure on that.

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