Stop, collaborate and innovate: Engineering a company science fair

Many people are aware of Google’s “20 percent time,” and the number of innovations that have been produced because of it (Gmail, Google News, and AdSense to name a few). Several other companies have tried this before and after Google; one of the most famous examples of side-project innovation is 3M’s Post it Note. Software development companies are now emulating this model, holding hack-a-thons where flurries of innovation occur.At Bazaarvoice we’ve been holding regular Science Fairs every few months for well over the last year to allow our Engineering team to stretch their creative muscles. The format is simple; we schedule the two-day Science Fairs at times that are not likely to have a lot of conflicts with the regular release cycle, typically over a Thursday and a Friday. When the engineers arrive on Thursday, instead of working on the newest features in our evergreen platform, they get to choose what they want to work on. Teams of engineers (and designers) from across our Implementation, Development, Operations, and Support teams work together all day Thursday—often late into the night—and half of the day Friday to bring their ideas to life. After lunch on Friday the teams present their projects to a panel of judges and finalists, and winners are announced.

These types of events are an amazing addition to the company’s culture, and really help to drive new innovations into our products. Engineers walk away from the two days of coding with a new sense of empowerment, realizing just how much they can accomplish in such a short period of time. Additionally, many of the projects stretch the bounds of what our products can do already, showing us new areas for efficiency improvements, incredible new user experiences, or just plain fun new ways of looking at the same data.

Having done this for a year, we’ve learned a few things along the way about how to run a successful Science Fair. Here are my top three tips.

1. Get thematic

We’ve learned that providing some structure to the projects helps to give people direction. We’ve published a list of themes for the last two Science Fairs, and that has helped not only with the task of judging all of the projects by dividing it into manageable chunks, but has also been a way to help engineers discover projects that they are passionate about.

2. Don’t be afraid to show it off

Second, it is critical that participants be able to see as many of the projects as possible at the conclusion of the Science Fair. We still have room to improve on this, but including a Science Fair Open House the Monday after the fair provides everyone with a chance to see what their peers were able to accomplish.

3. Level set

Finally, it is worthwhile noting that you should not expect to get new features or products out of every event. It is much more valuable to keep the process very open and to allow everyone to enjoy themselves rather than feeling like they have to produce the next great thing.