Inside Carsales’ love-themed hackathon

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Inside Carsales’ love-themed hackathon

Why culture is key.

Love might not be the first emotion that comes to mind when thinking of a hackathon.

Nor was this reporter expecting the entire green floor of Carsales’ Melbourne headquarters to be decked out with red crepe paper, love hearts, streamers and all-round sparkly things.

But when asked what theme Carsales’ seventh hackathon should contain, the company’s staff thought ‘love’ - as in ‘love thy customer’ - would work just fine.

Over three days late last week, more than 150 employees from across the Carsales business downed business-as-usual tools to put their heads together and come up with the latest innovative idea that would augment Carsales’ product offering to customers.

It’s not an easy task considering Carsales holds these types of events regularly, and on average 50 percent of ideas arising from the hackathons make it into production.

(On a side note, one of these ideas - homegrown telephony tools that connect a car buyer to a seller via voice-over IP - has just arrived in the market).

But 32 teams gave it a shot to compete for the prestigious ‘Ashes Cup’ - which they get to keep for three months - and the ability to see their idea through into production.

Pitches were wide and diverse - everything from internal productivity tools to integration with third parties for better access to inspections, mechanics and insurance providers, and improved use of data to provide more targeted offerings to Carsales browsers and buyers.

“The fact that 15 out of 30 ideas go live is great business value, but the other 15 are just as important because they create culture,” Carsales CIO Ajay Bhatia said.

Teams set up shop in stations around the office. Voters took a tour of each station at theit leisure to hear a short presentation on each team's product - this approach meant voters weren't confined to one room to sit through 32 pitches delivered back to back.

Five prizes were awarded: best in show for dealer, consumer and commercial products; best presentation; and the overall winner.

Best dealer hack went to team 'Hot Prospects' - whose idea used data more effectively to better target customers; best commercial was awarded to two teams - 'Customer Deep Learning' and 'Super Targeting', both data-focused products; and 'Team Caesar' took out the consumer award.

Best presentation went to a product that aimed to make getting quotes from mechanics easier (team members went to the effort of making several papier mache cars).

And the overall prize went to the Redbook team for their 'advisor' product.

(Carsales has asked us not to provide specific detail of the winning products for commercial reasons).

The importance of culture

Hackathons are the event du jour for enterprise IT shops at the moment. The Commonwealth Bank holds them regularly, as does Telstra, Bankwest and countless others.

For Carsales, though, it’s more than just an ideas incubator, it’s about culture - something Bhatia has worked hard to instill during his six years in the role.

For the last three or so years, Carsales IT has worked in what internally are called tribes. Each is dedicated to a particular customer segment - be it dealers, private sellers, buyers or even data and insights.

Depending on its size, each tribe will contain a product manager, quality assurance, developer, marketing rep and a tribe leader. Externally to the tribe, a super-function of each of those roles is responsible for everyone working in that particular position across the IT portfolio.

Carsales moved to this business model from a fairly standard IT arrangement where the tech team was centralised, and employees allocated to business areas based on current projects.

That model, according to Bhatia, wasn't successful because once a project was complete, the IT staff member simply moved on to another - with no feeling of ownership over the particular project.

Now, the “tribes” are given one specific customer segment to focus on permanently and a set of metrics to achieve rather than projects that have been outlined by management.

"It means they now feel responsible for making sure their customer group is being well catered for and that the team is meeting their goals," Bhatia said.

The tribes also regularly fill out happiness surveys which contain three questions to assess their level of happiness within their work environment - allowing Bhatia to spot and address problems early.

Given the number of employees willing to dress up in tuxedos, as cars and in sparkly hats and accessories for last week’s hackathon, the approach seems to be working.

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