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LeadDev Flashback: Carol Lee breaks down how hackathons can increase belonging, decrease anxiety and help people imagine new identities in tech

Hackathons are a beloved and long-running tradition in the tech industry–but what do we really know about making them work?

Much of the research on hackathons has focused on success only defined in terms of their impact on products: for example, how many hackathon projects lead to new features. But hackathons can also be a critical turning point for people: a place where developers can safely experiment with new identities and new ways of working together.

In this lightning talk, I’d like to share an example of a successful internal hackathon at Pluralsight and how it impacts developer experience. I’ll present evidence from our original research study, where we used rigorous research measures of anxiety and imposter syndrome to find quantitative evidence for the benefits of hackathons with 64 participants, using pre- and post-measures from behavioral science. Crucially, we found that teammate behavior during hackathons was an important lever for mitigating people’s stress, anxiety, and imposter syndrome, and that positive hackathon experiences can predict not only good outcomes from a single hackathon, but also people’s likelihood of engaging with hackathons and new technical work afterward.

Hackathons aren’t just good for team-building in the moment: in our study, we found that hackathons can serve as a microcosm for engineering teams in general, which work in similarly high stress and time-limited environments. One key take-away from our story is that leadership investment in small but powerful novel learning opportunities outside of people’s normal day-to-day work, like hackathons, can have a long-term impact in developers’ growth and sense of belonging within an organization. In this talk, I’ll provide science-backed, actionable recommendations for how managers can run successful hackathons, foster a culture of team belonging and learning, and mitigate the impacts of workplace anxiety and imposter syndrome, which disproportionately impact employees with minoritized identities.

Carol Lee, PhD

Clinical Research Scientist

Carol Lee is a senior research scientist in the Developer Success Lab, where she leverages her expertise in mental health and thoughtful measurement to study how developers cope and thrive through stressful circumstances. Carol has over a decade of experience leading academic and industry research in clinical health, measurement, and human behavior. Carol serves as a research fellow at the Integrated Behavioral Health Research Institute and as a clinical science advisor for Bravely Mental Health. She holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from UMass Boston. 

Carol Lee, PH.D.