Cultivating an innovation culture — the power of hackathons

With news of artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies dominating the business world, the question of innovation is top of mind for many companies. It certainly has been for us at Okta. 

As leaders in this space, we embrace our core company behavior of "Never Stop Innovating." But what does that truly entail? How can we effectively embrace new technologies and shifts while ensuring the necessary security posture for ourselves and our customers? Moreover, what does innovation look like beyond just chasing the "next big thing"? How do we foster an innovation culture that extends beyond specific events?

At Okta, we recognize that innovation is deeply critical to our continued success, not just when it comes to our products but also for our people and company culture. We strive to enable innovation as part of our everyday work while also setting aside dedicated time and space for experimentation. Our goal is to foster an environment that encourages big, bold ideas and influences how we build, collaborate, and envision the future.

In fact, innovation is core to our DNA, but we know that it can get lost as companies scale. So we have leaders focused on innovation, including three who contributed to this post:

  • Neta Retter, Director of Innovation Programs
  • Matias Woloski, Co-founder of Auth0 and Vice President of Research & Development 
  • Jasmine Bent, Staff Program Manager for Innovation and Communications 

This is great, but what are we actually doing to drive innovation at Okta? Let’s take a look.

Look Back Hack: May’s Internal Hackathon

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In May, we hosted the first of two companywide hackathons for the year, Look Back Hack. These intense, high-energy events bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds, each armed with a shared passion for innovation. The theme of Look Back Hack meant that in addition to tie-dye and groovy tunes, we challenged teams to be inspired by the past while building towards the future.

Doing hackathons at scale is challenging. It takes strategic design and intention to make sure that hackathons are engaging and fun, but also practical and valuable for the business. 

When we think of hackathons, we know that beyond the buzz of excitement, hackathons offer a crucial advantage to our teams by providing a time-boxed space for experimentation, allowing for greater freedom, and the ability to fail quickly within a risk-free environment. 

Those with a passion for technology eagerly dive into these events, exploring new technologies and pushing boundaries. A remarkable example of this occurred during Look Back Hack when teams successfully mitigated risks associated with AI usage. By implementing clear guardrails, including not using customer or private data or accessing source code, teams were able to still effectively demonstrate the potential of AI in a hypothetical manner. The results were astonishing. Participants accomplished remarkable achievements in just three days, including at least one team laying out the groundwork for a new large learning mode, hacks that may result in patents, and be adopted into roadmap work! Overall 25% of the projects chose to focus on AI experimentation, and witnessing teams tackling the same problem space from diverse perspectives was truly inspiring.

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Our global teams always find creative ways to connect including virtual platforms. Avatars from left to right: Principal Site Reliability Engineer Prashant Shah, Staff Software Engineer Arjun Duggal, Principal Site Reliability Engineer Jeremy Campbell, Senior Manager, Site Reliability Engineering Darren Cassar, Staff Database Reliability Engineer Carl Plummer, Principal Site Reliability Engineer Sukhdeep Kohli, Staff Software Engineer, Prasanth Mathialagan, Software Engineer II Abhilash Harish Srivathsa, and Principal Database Reliability Engineer Pim van der Wal.

Expanding the Reach of Hackathons

We know that the best ideas come from leveraging diverse perspectives. Hackathons have been a longstanding practice here at Okta and in the past few years, we’ve made concerted efforts to make the program even more inclusive of teams across disciplines, time zones, and experience. This starts from building visibility for the program at a companywide level through a launch at our company All Hands, accompanied by our much-loved logo competition. And throughout the lead-up, during, and post-event, we ensure that accessibility and fun are essential elements of the program.

Look Back Hack was the biggest and most collaborative hackathon in company history, with over 12% of the company participating and a 5.5% growth from the previous hackathon. It showcased projects that tackled internal challenges, product enhancements, and field enablement. Each project brought a flavor of fun and fresh perspectives on our current ways of working. While not every project moves forward to production, we make it a point to highlight impressive hacks and explore their potential integration into our teams' roadmaps. Ultimately, it is always a moment of celebration when teams hack and learn new skills, meet new people, have fun, and in some cases, transition their hacks into tangible products!

Cultivating an Innovation Culture at Okta

Beyond hackathons, our goal is to foster a culture of innovation that extends far past these distinct moments in time. It is about creating an environment that encourages and nurtures this behavior so that it becomes ingrained in the fabric of our organization and permeates our everyday work. At Okta, we work so that individuals are comfortable taking calculated risks, where they embrace challenges as opportunities for growth and learning, and where they are unafraid to challenge the status quo.

We strive to hold innovation as an integral part of who we are as a company, shaping what we believe in, what we do, and what we aspire to achieve. When we say "if we're doing it right," we mean that innovative thinking and actions are celebrated and encouraged in every aspect of Okta. It means providing the necessary support, resources, and platforms for individuals to experiment, collaborate, and bring their bold ideas to life. By fostering a culture of innovation, we empower our employees to think creatively, explore new possibilities, and constantly seek ways to improve and evolve.

Curious about how you might contribute to Okta innovation? Learn more about open opportunities on our careers page.