How online innovation days brought our remote labs closer together
As we are gearing up for the 4th edition of Remote Innovation Days at Dynatrace, I chatted with head organizer Dorota Zaranska to peek behind the scenes.
Innovation Days is an internal event at Dynatrace, in which employees are encouraged to build a team and come up with a prototype of an idea within 24 hours.
This type of event is sometimes also known in the tech space as a “hackathon”, but the two are slightly different. Hackathons are often based on a theme or aimed at solving a problem, whilst Innovation Days give more freedom to participants as to what they want to do. Another big difference is that Innovation Days are not only for developers, instead anyone in the company is encouraged to participate.
As many firms are wary of giving their employees the freedom to work on a passion project for 24 hours at their expense, these types of events are often relegated to conferences or to promotional events aimed at hiring new talent.
However, Dynatrace is a firm believer in “walking the talk” and finds that we cannot preach innovation if we do not encourage it internally.
It does not seem that employees are in any way skeptical of participating: with just a few days left, we already have 17 projects signed up, which sums up to around 40+ participants.
The excitement for Innovation Days is palpable in the air, even if we are all working from our own homes. When we asked previous participants to walk down memory lane and tell us projects that came out of previous editions that are still in use, the Slack thread was inundated with messages and emojis.
The ideas have a massive range: from Dynatrace-themed online games and math exercises for slow internet connections (try it out here: https://www.saprendo.com/) to activity detection on coffee machines and extremely useful Dynatrace extensions.
The rules of the game
The basic idea of the Innovation Days is to build a team and create a prototype of your idea within 24 hours. Anyone can join, anything goes. You just need to present the outcomes!
One week before the event there is a pitching session, where you can present your idea, gather feedback, and even find team members if you do not have a team yet. One week later, you have one day to work on the project and at the end of this time, you present your results in front of the audience and the jury.
To ensure fair competition, the projects are judged by both a team of judges and by public vote, split at 50/50.
Behind the scenes at Remote Innovation Days
To find out more about behind the scenes, I spoke to Dorota Zaranska, who is heading the team organizing this March’s edition.
Her main job at the company is software developer within the Core UI team but she sees the Innovation Days as one of her passion projects. She mentions that her passion is learning, so she spends her free time learning new skills — just recently playing the cello — and she is a scout instructor.
What made you decide to organize the Innovation Days this year?
I joined the organizing team in the previous edition, and I decided to take over this year. Anybody in the company who wants to can organize it, and the team changes every edition. I think it’s worth joining even just for the experience.
I personally like doing it because it’s something different than what I usually do for work, and it’s a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with other colleagues you do not usually work with.
What is the history of this event at Dynatrace?
It started locally in Gdansk in spring 2019 thanks to my colleague Grzegorz Majchrzak. He is one of our directors and when he joined Dynatrace, he was surprised that there were no events of this type here and immediately wanted to change it.
Initially, every lab used to have its own local event and they were held independently on different dates.
When the lockdown started, we decided to continue having this event remotely, and that’s when we started talking with the local organizers in other labs across the world. We thought that if we were having the event remotely anyway, we might as well do it together.
How have the Innovation Days evolved over time?
The formula of the Innovation Days is in constant evolution. We gather feedback after every edition and inspect and adapt.
For example, when we started doing it remotely, we had presentations at the same time, but every lab had its own. Then we realized that it would have been nice to have a bigger audience and share the knowledge between labs, so we started having only one presentation.
We also experimented with the format, for example, if we would give people specific categories to work on — we once did a “COVID-19 response” category.
What happens with the ideas after the Innovation Days are over?
Some tools that have been created during the event are still in use now in everyday work by developers, and they have spread through the company. For example, specific browser extensions that make you more productive.
The 2nd place winner of the last edition actually became a Value Creation Team, meaning a longer-term team and project aimed at implementing this idea within the company.
Generally, the projects that make sense for the company and bring real value are further developed after the event.
Have you seen any benefits within the company brought on by Innovation Days?
Besides the obvious, like the projects that are still in use now after the event is over, the main benefit is feeling like you are being encouraged to think about innovations and improvements.
You should not just do your work, but also find ways to innovate it. And if you do not have time to try out ideas during your regular duties, you can use this event to do so.
It’s also a great way to strengthen team collaboration and to try out new ways of working. I think it has opened people in some way and developed participants’ presentation skills and product thinking.
I think it also fosters an atmosphere of appreciation and it’s an opportunity to get to know other people and their accomplishments. It integrates us and brings us closer, especially now that it’s remote.
There are also some projects that are done just for fun, so it’s great that we just have space and time to follow our ideas and be creative. In one of our last editions, we even had colleagues experimenting with brain waves.
It’s all about the process of innovating and not really about the outcomes. We have winners but winning is not the most important thing.
What challenges do you face organizing this remotely?
Since we’ve been working remotely all the time since March 2020, it’s not really a technical challenge to organize this event remotely.
The only thing I think is missing is the lack of a festive atmosphere. When we were in the office it was kind of like a team event, with a lot of celebration and fun, we had a stage and a crowd to celebrate the achievements. To compensate for it we added some additional activities for the audience to take part in. They can do some quizzes and things, which makes it more interactive.
But not all is bad, being remote helped us make the event more centralized. Since we are remote anyway it just seemed more natural to organize the Innovation Days together. This experience opened us more to cross-lab collaboration. Both the organizers and the participants are cross-lab.
What are the plans for the post-pandemic future?
I hope that we will still hold this event together in the future when we are allowed back in the offices. We need to find a way to combine the office-vibes, being remote, and keeping it all cross-lab.
There are also perspectives for this event to be even bigger. Right now, we have offices in Austria, Poland, Spain, and Detroit participating, but a team from Australia also wants to join the fun. So, it might be a challenge for future organizers to include them and deal with a 16-hour time difference!
Every edition of Innovation Days is unique, and we never see the same idea being presented twice. If you are curious about what prototype we build next, keep an eye out on our blog for upcoming updates on this event. (Sneak peek: one of our next projects involves augmented reality)
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