Behind the scenes of the AMBOSS Engineering and Product Hackathon


Creativity, inspiration and a whole lot of fun for everyone involved

The 2021 AMBOSS Engineering and Product hackathon took place in early June. For one week, teams worked on building new and innovative products related to the company, but that fell outside of their everyday roles and responsibilities.

Individuals pitched ideas and eleven teams were formed. The teams had three days to design, validate, and build products that would be presented to a panel of judges.

We spoke to Willem Stam, Agile Delivery Team Lead at AMBOSS, who was part of the organizing team for the Engineering and Product hackathon. He explains what it’s like to be part of the organizing team, what the key takeaways for participants of hackathons are, and what surprised him at this year’s event.

Willem Stam, Agile Delivery Team Lead at AMBOSS

What were you responsible for as part of the organizing team?

I was one of the main drivers of the organization of the hackathon. That means getting a group of people together, kicking off the organization, setting up meetings, preparing slides, giving talks, gathering information, and figuring out how to do this all remotely.

Having said that, there was a medical hackathon recently and there was a lot of organization work done in the EN Medical department that we were able to reuse.

Were you involved in organizing the hackathons before like last year?

I participated last year. It introduced me to new people, different ways of working, and I got to try out roles that are different from what I do everyday. It was a lot of fun and very inspiring.

How was the hackathon different this year as compared to last year?

Last year there was one AMBOSS hackathon — both the medical and product and engineering teams worked together. This year, there was a medical one, and a product and engineering one that was run remotely.

I think there were some challenges to doing everything remotely but at the same time, I always feel like creativity thrives under constraints. Being limited by the remote setting might have helped enhance creativity in this case.

What did you hope people would get out of it?

I hoped that people would first of all have fun. Secondly, I hoped that they’d work with people they don’t work with so often. I also hoped they’d go out of their comfort zones — take on a different role, try working with a different technology or try a completely different way of working.

We had a team where a junior engineer pitched the idea and galvanized the team — it’s great to see someone step out of their comfort zone this way.

I also hoped that it would spark creativity. That people could broaden their horizons, think outside of their roles and teams, and also see what’s possible with the products, tools, and people we have available at AMBOSS.

There’s always going to be more ideas than we can execute on, which I think is healthy, but it’s also interesting to open up the box for a week and say you can work on anything related to AMBOSS. It can be weird and quirky, and there were some very quirky ideas and presentations, but I was inspired to see people thinking outside of the box like they were.

As the organizing team did you provide any guidance to participants, or did you let people do what they wanted for both the ideas and presentations?

We wanted people to think about the potential for AMBOSS in terms of improving things for employees, and on the product and user side. But we also wanted to help them by guiding their creativity. If you say that you can do anything related to AMBOSS that’s very broad and might be paralyzing.

So we created suggested themes for the teams to work on. These were;

  • Growth hacks
  • Improving employee performance or experience, and
  • Customer delight

We provided a few words about what those categories meant. On the Notion page where people could sign up, we also listed a couple of ideas from last year’s hackathon for inspiration.

There are ideas from last year’s hackathon that actually made it into the product this year— for example dark mode started as a hackathon project in 2020.

On the day before the Thursday presentations, we hosted a lunch and learn session where I talked about tips and advice for presenting.

This included information on how to structure a presentation such as;

  • Presenting the problem that you want to solve
  • Presenting the solution
  • Trying to make us feel the problem
  • Talking about the impact
  • What the potential would be for AMBOSS, and
  • Introducing the team

Then we talked about delivery — keeping people engaged, the energy up, and being creative with the presentation style. Last year when it was the office, people used props, music, lights, costumes, and got into the acting part of it. This year we were limited because of the remote structure, but there were some creative presentations.

The presentations were amazing! What was one of the things that surprised you most from the hackathon experience?

The originality of the ideas, how high impact they were, and the execution of them. I’ve seen a couple hackathons at other companies over the years and the projects tend to stay at the idea level — it’s usually not more than a mockup, prototype, or some images of what they want it to become, with some very basic code execution.

At this hackathon, I was surprised that there were some details in the presentations that could have been left out, and everyone would still have been impressed. It’s great to see that we have such motivated and capable people working here.

What do you think helped contribute to the amount of execution that went into getting these presentations, and nearly working products, by the end?

I think competition plays a role, the fact that there were prizes and someone would be the best in a certain category.

But I also think it was because people worked on something that they haven’t worked on before with people from outside their direct team. I can imagine that it’s very fun and inspiring to do something completely different.

Plus, knowing no other work needed to be done during this time, at AMBOSS we put all other work aside during the hackathon, helped them focus on their projects.

What was your main takeaway from the hackathon?

I think it was a reminder of the passion, motivation, and ideas people have. It also made me proud to work for AMBOSS. I’ve worked in the engineering department for a year and a half now and it’s sometimes easy to forget how great the people you’re constantly working with are.

It’s impressive to see people step out of their comfort zones, have fun and work with different people in fun and respectful ways, with new people and, at the same time, with great results.

If someone was thinking about another company perhaps running a hackathon or suggesting a hackathon to their own team what advice might you give them?

My advice would be don’t worry too much about setting limitations of what people can work on. Trust them, give them tools and advice. Empower them to work on fun things, have good ideas and collaborate with people. You’ll be surprised by the results.