Tips From Capital One on Running Virtual Hackathons

By Lilly Milman |  January 29, 2021

One of Jennifer Lopez‘s favorite parts of her job was spending time at one of the Capital One Labs, which have locations in Washington D.C., New York City, and San Francisco. 

Jennifer Lopez, Capital One

“There was an energy about working in the lab that people really enjoyed,” she says. “When we all went to work from home, one of the things that we had to ask ourselves was, ‘How do we bring that energy to remote work? How do we make innovation happen everywhere?’ I frankly had a perspective that innovation happened in the office.”

One necessary shift was bringing hackathons out of the lab and onto the screen. Because planning a virtual hackathon is much different than an in-person one, the first event of the pandemic era had to be pushed back by several weeks, but now the Labs are back to their usual cadence of events — focused on topics like cyber security, banking for seniors, and more. 

Lopez is the Vice President of Product Development and the Head of the Innovation Lab at Capital One. In a recent interview with InnoLead, she shared insights on how her team has managed to introduce some serendipity into its virtual hackathons, and tips for how your team can do the same.

  1. Act quickly, and don’t assume things will go back to “normal.” When Capital One employees began working from home in March, everyone felt unsure about the timeline for returning back to work in the office. Instead of living in the uncertainty, Lopez’s team decided in April “to presume this is how we’re going to operate indefinitely.” For her, it was important to say: “Let’s commit to that change — but let’s take a little bit of time to ask ourselves, ‘how do we do this right?'” This is why they pushed their first hackathon back, but ultimately decided to host the same amount of total hackathon events that they would any other year. 
  2. You need to adjust timelines for a virtual event. Typically, hackathons run by the lab would last one week. Everyone involved would come to the lab, meet their team, and head to their own dedicated project room. “There wasn’t a ton of prep work. It was really bringing an idea, [putting the teams together] beforehand, and then letting them run,” Lopez says. “In the virtual environment, we’ve discovered that because people aren’t just in a room together for the entire day, we want to put a little more meat on the bone for the ideas in advance.”

    This is why their virtual hackathons now last for three weeks. In the first week, participants are supposed to get to know their teammates and their working styles, and get acquainted with their idea. Week two is about setting up infrastructure, like finding out what tools and technology are necessary and getting it all set up. The last week is the standard hackathon week — and being on Zoom is optional. 

    “If we spread it out over the course of three weeks, rather than one week, it’s far less taxing,” she says. “The magic of [innovation] comes when people build trust. It’s not the case that you can’t build trust over Zoom — you totally can. But we find it’s harder to do it in one hour over Zoom than it is in one hour in-person. So we try to find the ways to get people to have those connections outside of the standard process.”

  3. Educate your staff on the issues prior to the hackathon. Since the innovation team at Capital One focuses on all parts of the organization, hackthon teams have to be ready to dive into any department.

    “As we were leading up to [our first online] hackathons, we realized we needed to do a more robust analysis of opportunities,” Lopez says. “That way, we could spend some time educating our staff so…by the time they walked into the hackathon, they would feel really comfortable with everything that they needed to know about fraud, or…risk management or…fill-in-the-blank.”

    They took care to do more detailed opportunity mapping, complete with charts, tools, and engagement models. One of the critical components was creating “a really flushed-out version” of stakeholder maps that help employees understand not only how a topic like fraud is handled by all of Capital One’s departments, but also all of the customer touch points associated with it.

     “We try to take different frameworks to allow us to input data — business data, consumer data, process data, and technology data — to compare these various pieces,” she says. “So, we can go from, ‘Hey, on the topic of fraud, what should we do?’ to ‘Hey, these are the 10 top fraud ideas.'”

Lopez describes the timeline for ideas to make it to market at Capital One Labs as “anywhere from two days to two years,” since they work on so many different projects. She also says she’s never afraid to throw an idea out, and that effective stage-gating is “a really big, important piece to our puzzle.” 

“Just because an idea is good, doesn’t mean we should do it. … [Our] whole perspective is: Get a portfolio, get as many ideas as you can, so you can compare them and say, ‘What about A to B, B to C? … Which of these ideas do we actually think is going to make it?'” Lopez explains. “So, in a couple of weeks, we can … say, ‘These are five thematic areas [we’re interested in working on]. In each of those thematic areas, we have a bunch of ideas. And through our analysis, through our research, through our prototyping, we will narrow it down to just a few.'”

Hackathons are a great way to “go through 55 ideas, get to the five to 10 that we’ll build, to then get to the two to three that we really think will get to the finish line.” The value that the events can deliver is in the breadth of ideas they bring to the table, even if most get tossed out. Lopez compares compares having a broad portfolio of ideas and projects to tasting a lot of different kinds of pizza: 

“If you’ve only ever eaten one pizza, you think it must be the best pizza in the world. Then you eat another and it makes you question that. And if you eat even more, you could know quantifiably what is better than the other,” she says. “That’s what I always say about innovation. It is about having confidence in your decisions, and the best way to do that is to know that you’ve looked at the portfolio of problems to solve…”