What the Hack: the TomTom Hackathon
Heiko Schilling·Nov 19, 2019

What the Hack: the TomTom Hackathon

Heiko Schilling
Head of Navigation Unit
Nov 19, 2019 · 5 min read
What is a TomTom Hackathon? | TomTom Blog

To stimulate innovation, hackathons are an excellent way for technology companies to take a bottom-up approach to reach new technological breakthroughs.

Four years ago, I was on my way to the first ever TomTom Hackathon. I hoped that it would be a good experience for everyone involved. Little did I know how far it would exceed those hopes, or how far it would grow beyond that first time.

Now, four years later, What the Hack is a three-day event bringing hundreds of colleagues together from across different teams, disciplines and countries. It’s become a place where we come together as one TomTom team and code the future of mobility.

Looking back at What the Hack V4

In this article, I write about what a TomTom hackathon looks like, and how organizing something like it can positively impact your business.

What is a TomTom hackathon?

There are hackathons, and then there are TomTom hackathons. A TomTom hackathon brings together a cohort of software engineers and other specialists from all corners of the organization and the world. It’s an intense experience where we solve tomorrow’s mobility challenges over a span of 24 hours. And the best part is that we solve these challenges together, in one place, rather than at our own desks. The time at our hackathons reminds us how much we enjoy our work and the company of our colleagues. This vision of a hackathon goes back to my days at the Chaos Computer Club in the 80s and 90s.

On the eve of the fifth edition of the TomTom Hackathon taking place on 19-21 November 2019 in Eindhoven, let’s have a look at some numbers from the previous event. The fourth hackathon took place in Berlin on 22-24 October 2018, and brought together:

  • Almost 500 participants from multiple disciplines (software engineers, UX designers, architects, product managers, marketers and many more)

  • Representatives from every single unit in TomTom

  • 4 external companies and academic institutions

  • 39 challenges designed to solve real customer problems

  • 24 hours of coding

  • 6 winning teams receiving 6 fantastic prizes

  • 2 noted external speakers

There was music (check out our “What the Hack V4” public playlist on Spotify), great food and loads of fun. And a tiny bit of sleep. Events like this don’t just happen, of course. There was another amazing collaboration behind the scenes: the way our volunteer organizers from the business donated their time and effort to make the event a success.

Why do we run hackathons?

As the world’s leading independent location technology specialist, TomTom has a big task: to create technology for a moving world.But creating the tools for a safe, connected, autonomous world free of congestion and emissions is no easy feat. It’s beyond the capability of any one person, or any isolated team. To make something this big happen, we need to make the best of what our collective minds can create. As Ken Blanchard says, “none of us is as smart as all of us”. The TomTom Hackathon brings all of us together. It creates that “all of us” feeling that binds us together for the rest of the year, across organizational and geographical boundaries.

Why should you run a hackathon?

Here are four solid reasons to organize a hackathon.

1.    It brings everyone together

Even when they’re working on the same projects, many of our teams are based in several countries and made up of several disciplines from software engineers to product managers and UX designers. Getting on the same page and meeting in person is often a luxury. And coding can be a lonely thing, so it helps to be reminded that you are part of something bigger, and to see the real impact you make to the success of a product.

A team hard at work during What the Hack V4

A team hard at work during What the Hack V4

The hackathon is a way of showing that “we are all in it together”, giving employees a chance to get to know each other in a setting that encourages collaboration… and have some fun. Spending 24 hours in the same room working towards the same outcome, you get to know the person behind the job title. To make friends. And working with friends is better than working with colleagues.

2.    It produces tangible results, fast

A clear focus and a tight deadline push teams to make a lot of progress in a very short period of time. It drives us to find the core of a customer problem and focus on solving it. Every hackathon, after 24 hours of coding, we put at least one winning project into production. And in that 24 hours, we enrich our roadmap with a speed and quality only possible during a hackathon.

3.    It provides inspiration

For three days, participants get to learn from each other. They build on each other’s knowledge and come up with ideas that none of them would have thought of in any other situation. Being in an environment full of energy and determination not only motivates our teams, but opens their minds to new, previously unthinkable collaborative solutions. Better collaboration leads to better results. 

A hackathon participant in Berlin, 2018

A hackathon participant in Berlin, 2018.

Widening the mix of personalities, skills and backgrounds ensures that different perspectives and experiences can be taken into consideration. Invisible challenges and possibilities arise, whether from engineers and designers learning from each other or colleagues from different cultures coming together to solve universal technology problems.

4.    It gets everyone on the same page

Bringing the teams together does more than create a sense of community. It’s also the right moment to reinforcing common messages and shared values. Whether it’s the company strategy or our vision and mission, hackathons are the perfect time to make sure that everyone is informed and feels part of the bigger TomTom story.

Preparing a presentation at What the Hack V4 about TomTom creating technologies for a moving world

Preparing a presentation at What the Hack V4 about TomTom creating technologies for a moving world.

Making it worthwhile

For me, the TomTom hackathon is special. It’s the moment of the year I look forward to the most. You’ll have to find your own way of making it worthwhile. You could just treat it as another corporate event. But even better, you can take it for what truly is: that magical moment when everyone comes together to work towards a common goal, finding purpose, motivation and building friendships along the way. And who doesn’t want to be part of that?

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