Creativity at Commerce is on display at our annual Hackathon.
Innovation is important at Commerce Bank. We continuously strive to improve the products and services we provide our customers, as well as the efficiency of our processes. One of the many ways we spark creativity and innovation is through our annual Hackathon — an event in which groups of team members from across the bank work for three days to create prototypes of tech-focused solutions that resolve real business issues.
Commerce has been holding Hackathons since 2014, when a group led by Bill Mowris, a senior vice president and director of IT, suggested them as a way to drive innovation even further at the bank. “I have a tendency to come up with a lot of ideas, so sometimes people would see me coming and head the other way,” Mowris says with a laugh. “I thought the Hackathon might meet that same fate. But my boss was curious about it, so we built out the program and it took off from there.”
Since then, Mowris has served as the event’s executive sponsor. “I help to provide guidance to the organizers, the participants, the judges — everyone involved in the event,” he says.
“A big part of what I do is to narrow down the ideas that get developed during each Hackathon. We really want to focus on ones that are challenging — we want to work on the critical few, not the many.”
Much of that narrowing down happens after the first step in the Hackathon process, known as the Hackathon Faire. “The Faire is an opportunity for our champions — the people who come up with interesting ideas — to present those ideas to a committee,” says Alysha Mitchell, an IT project manager who serves as the coordinator of the Hackathon. “The champions try to get people excited about their ideas so other participants will choose to be on their teams. If they don’t get enough volunteers or the panel of judges doesn’t think the concept is viable, their idea won’t proceed to the Hackathon itself.”
Initially, the Hackathon was only open to members of the IT department. Today, any team member from any area of the organization can participate, either as an idea champion or as a participant who joins one of the project teams. “It doesn't matter where a good idea comes from,” says Mowris, “as long as it’s creative and it pushes the envelope.”
Mitchell notes that there aren’t strict rules about the kinds of ideas that can be brought forward. “As long as it’s something that benefits our customers or improves the way we do things, we want to hear it,” she says. “It’s fun to see ideas evolve from notes on paper into something that’s been truly brought to life. The people who participate love it.”
By the time the Hackathon Faire is complete, the ideas that will move forward to the next phase have been finalized and project teams have been formed. After that comes the Hackathon itself — during which teams work as quickly as possible to turn their ideas into functional prototypes.
“The Hackathon is engaging and exciting,” says Mowris.
“The ideas people come up with — and the ways the ideas are developed — are always very creative. I’m consistently amazed by the quality of the work that gets accomplished in such a short period of time.”
Teams have only two and a half days to work before they present their prototypes to a panel of judges. This compressed timeline creates a real challenge for the participants. “Fortunately, people who volunteer for the Hackathon enjoy a good challenge,” Mowris says. “It’s a developmental opportunity for people because they can play roles on Hackathon teams that they might not otherwise play.”
Mitchell says part of the popularity of the Hackathon is that it allows people to contribute in entirely new ways. “It’s an opportunity for their voices to be heard, and for people to work on something outside of their day-to-day role and really think and work outside the box,” she says. “People get to network with other team members they might not otherwise meet.”
One of Mitchell’s favorite things to do during the Hackathon is simply walking around and watching the various groups develop their ideas. “The atmosphere is just electric,” she says. “It’s interesting to observe people as they’re building their prototypes. You can see the excitement on their faces. Excitement, frustration, nervousness, anxiety, happiness, the joy of an ‘ah ha’ moment — it’s all there at a Hackathon.”
Over the years, quite a few ideas that had their origins in the Hackathon have become a reality. The ability to assign nicknames to payees in Commerce’s online banking system is an example of one such idea. “That concept was introduced by a team member named Steve Nix, so he called his idea ‘Nix Names’ during the Hackathon,” Mitchell recalls.
“People like to have fun with the names of their projects.”
Another team member who had a particularly memorable Hackathon experience is Joe Cannon, a senior help desk supervisor who arrived at the event in 2017 with an idea intended to benefit everyone at Commerce. “We wanted to implement an idea we called the ‘automated password reset,’” he explains. “It would give Commerce team members the ability to reset or unlock their own network account password without requiring them to contact the help desk first.”
Cannon notes that the help desk team had priced a few external options for accomplishing this change, but he wanted to explore the feasibility of developing a solution in-house. “During the Hackathon, our team came up with a solution that did a lot of things we wanted it to do,” he says. “We had a multi-factor authentication tool running on it — which people are much more familiar with today than in 2017 — and once we got that piece of it integrated, we felt like we were getting somewhere. The solution we had by the end of the Hackathon really helped to inform the path forward that we eventually took as a company.”
The project ended up winning the People’s Choice Award, which is voted on by all Hackathon participants. “Luckily for us, we had a really great group of people on the team, and that made all the difference,” Cannon says. “I would recommend the Hackathon to anyone.”
Mowris agrees that participants seem to universally enjoy the Hackathon experience. “Once the event is over, people often feel great about what they’ve done and what they accomplished,” he says. “We do pick a ‘winner,’ but so many of the projects are so well done, and people are less concerned with that than they are with doing great work and participating to the fullest. We have a great spirit of innovation at Commerce, and this event puts the spotlight on that in a way that keeps people coming back every year.”