10 unforgettable lessons I learnt from participating in codeathon

I recently participated in a Codeathon event at SunGard. The event had high energy levels and a good buzz on Twitter. The idea is to come up with a concept, and then code and develop the proof of concept to completion in 48 hours. More than 300 developers participated in what turned out to be an amazing global festival of innovation and ideas.

From being a non-technical person with nothing to contribute, I felt, firsthand, the excitement and meaning in creativity and technical excellence. This was mainly because I partnered with amazingly gifted team members who provided me a unique opportunity to learn. Here are some of my unexpected but incredibly powerful lessons:

1. The first step is the hardest

I learnt that the most vital and difficult thing is to take that first step. I was always excited by the thought of participating in a Codefest but lacking the skill set. It happened though as a blessing when Susheel, a colleague and friend said he is registering a team and wants me to be a part of the event. Sometimes you need the friend and guide to help you get started when you might not be feeling upto it.

2. Overcoming self-doubt

But Susheel did more than just get us started. I expressed my inability to contribute in any meaningful way and his reply was that on the contrary, I could contribute by ideating, reviewing and providing suggestions. He even said that I could code if I wanted to! The encouragement helped as I did not want to be just an ornament within the team.

3. Fighting hard but resolving quickly (collaboration)

We started with initial meetings. It was an odd combination with a couple of ageing and rusty techies, an enthusiastic captain and an opinionated HR guy. We fought so hard on what we could work on and achieve in 48 hours that we almost did not get started.

Susheel showed his leadership skills again, patiently making a case for not giving up before getting started and attempting something meaningful.

The important takeaway lesson here was that given time constraints, all of us were committed to resolving differences quickly after airing opinions.

4. Discovering why you come to work everyday

Codeathon gives us a way to understand why we come to work every day. Because there are no overt rewards, no guarantee of success. Yet, the amount of effort and enthusiasm is extraordinarily high as compared to an average day at work. Rewards, if any, are completely intrinsic to the project you are doing.

Here is my one line takeaway on why we come to work everyday:

It is as simple as that. Our positive energies are creativity, teamwork, and sense of accomplishment. It is the hope of building a better product, of realizing our dreams and ideas. This is more powerful than extrinsic rewards like money, position and titles. 

5. Learning what engagement level of more than 100% means

By participating in Codeathon, you experience an energy surge of more than 100%. No one tells you what to do. The collaboration is spontaneous, intuitive and more than hundred percent. For a short 48 hours, you get a firsthand glimpse of what it would be like if engagement level was more than hundred percent. If the experience of work was fueled only by the drive to create something great, unspoilt by negativity and politics.

I wondered if this is what it might have been to work on a project like the creation of iPhone or an everyday experience at Facebook.

6. When you are passionate everyone supports you

Almost everyday, when I come home from work, I see the faces of my wife and children saying “You’re late again, no time for us”. 

During Codeathon, we were doing catch up calls in the middle of the night, reviewing progress, giving feedback, doing mid-course corrections. The great thing was that my family was completely supportive. My wife would give me a warm glass of milk in the middle of the night and even asked how things were progressing.

The key lesson I learned is that when you are positive and happy and passionate, people around you feel the passion and support what you are doing. It is like cheering your child in a school play or football game.

7. Going the extra mile in the last 15 minutes

Codeathon, like any time-limited competition, is about making use of little pockets of time. It is about reviewing things and attempting to take things up another notch. 

The last time I felt like this was 24 years ago, writing the entrance exam for my business school – the test is so tough that at every stage you face a choice –

“Hang in there and solve just one more question, increasing the chances of your success or give in and hang up”.

Winners hang in there.

8. Finding unexpected Twitter love

I call Codeathon a fest because it feels like an outpouring of positive and creative energy. It is when teams of developers going through the exact same experience across boundaries are connected in an almost surreal manner.

The best place to experience this is on Twitter. Teams share their experiences of eating pizza dinners, “converting caffeine to code”, nudging each other as they meet others going through similar experiences. 

Super excited to hear results of the SunGard Global Hacker Cup round 1 #SGHackerCup Happy Memories: http://t.co/pqn2O4Exqr

— Firas Sawaf (@FirasSawaf) June 16, 2014

I found some really cool Twitter accounts and received unexpected love and complimentary emails.

9. You learn why code is addictive

More than anything else, Codeathon is about coding. Going through the process you learn why coding is addictive. Here are the steps involved in the process:

1. First, you discuss the possibilities of what can be built, why it will be cool and useful. Your team tosses around ideas evaluating their usefulness, innovation factor as well as feasibility of doing it in 48 hours. Of course at this stage it is completely uncertain whether you can actually accomplish what you set out to.
2. Next, teams start coding, bringing the idea to life, showing what can be achieved.
3. The team reviews and discusses whether the code is working and whether what we set out to do is being achieved
– additional feedback, comments are provided on how it can be better

The above steps are rapidly repeated multiple times during the 48 hours, providing ample opportunities to form ideas, test the execution and improve the results. Each step in this process is addictive. But what is exceptionally addictive is when you see the idea brought to life. You realize that this is the core of innovation in the technology industry –

Of course, it helps when you work with geniuses.

10. You discover leadership qualities in others

Teams in Codeathon have a “captain”, who helps to navigate and move the team forward. Our captain built the team together, giving us hope that we could do something, extracted value from each person, kept things cool, got us together for reviews and ensured a good output. We eventually finished in the top ten out of 57 competing teams, though the eventual result was never as important as the experience itself. We knew that other, more deserving, hard working people were in the fray.

I experienced that 

The most important lesson was that,  each person in the team was seen to share leadership at various stages, bringing to life their natural strengths.

iSharad - Leadership and Career Success

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Sharad Verma is currently HR Head (CHRO) for Sears Holdings India.

Sharad’s blog on leadership, talent and innovation is available at www.iSharad.com. Sharad has been named one of the Top 20 Social Media HR Influencers by SHRM, featured as one of the Best HR Heads in India and his column featured in the top 5 most read career advice on Star career website.

A graduate of the prestigious XLRI, Sharad has more than two decades of HR experience. He has previously been Global Head – Human Resources for Polaris Consulting & Services Ltd, Director, Human Resources for SunGard Global Technology, Head of Human Resources for Berkadia (subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway), Monster.com, and The Bank of New York Mellon India.

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2 thoughts on “10 unforgettable lessons I learnt from participating in codeathon

    • Dear Sharad!

      Nice article. I underwent something similar way back in 2009, when it was all about Scrum Training/ Agile Project Management. The TOGETHER EVERYONE ACHIEVES MORE, fundamental is true in every aspect of life. Whether its career/job/hobby/, what have you.

      The team building and leadership exercise that happen are a great platform to bring out those hidden attributes in one, to the fore!

      Sometimes, in events like these the real attitude and aptitude come out, which are otherwise subdued, giving a totally wrong impression.

      Thanks for sharing!