BetterWorks Reimagines the Hackathon with Legos and a Beachfront Penthouse

By Michael Carney , written on April 30, 2012

From The News Desk

BetterWorks is a company all about making the lives of employees better. It’s corporate culture, from its self-described “adrenaline-fueled angel investor” founder to its lowliest employee is one of people first and fun.

Never was this more obvious than last Thursday when the company threw the traditional hackathon playbook out the window and invited 60 top Los Angeles engineers and developers to a multi-million dollar beachfront penthouse to play with Legos.

The invite read:

Stop me if you've heard this one... why do LEGO women like LEGO men? Because they are STUDS! So, here's the deal...We need your help building the future, one LEGO at a time in a race we hope you'll never forget (so go easy on the free drinks, yeah?). This is a special event for those LEGO-loving software engineers and web developers who haven’t stopped being a kid (because we haven’t). We’re going to put you in teams, give you the materials, fill up your drinks, explain the parameters, wish you luck and start the clocks. We’ll have a panel of Silicon Beach experts judge your teams on criteria that we'll announce before the building begins.
The Venice Beach Penthouse belongs to the company’s founder Paige Craig, although he doesn’t live there. Instead he uses the stunning space like a clubhouse to host social events for movers and shakers of the emerging “Silicon Beach” revolution of which he is the undisputed ring leader.

I arrived early to the event to chat with its organizers and had the pleasure of watching each of the engineers arrive. Most were mouth agape as they stepped off the private glass elevator, all quickly whipping out their camera phones to document the scene. Maybe they thought no one would believe where they spent their Thursday evening. This wasn’t the pocket-protector crowd, but attire definitely ranged from the conservative Express for Men collection to the infamous “startup hoodie” and some amazingly expressive shoes.

Although not listed anywhere on the event invite, the evening was actually organized by BetterWorks’ HR and engineering departments as a clever way to meet and evaluate potential job candidates in a casual setting. Its Communications Director Nicole Jordan, says “We all forget how to play when we grow up. When we play with our hands, synapses in our brain fire in these magical ways.” The free-flowing shots of liquor throughout the evening may have had a slightly different effect on those synapses.

The company’s VP of engineering Josh Woods says, “The hackathon has been around since the early days of Yahoo, and no one wants to keep doing the same old thing. We thought we could do something better.” Not surprisingly, it was their boss Paige Craig who was the one to say what everyone else was thinking, “I'm just excited to see who's the first engineer who gets in the hot tub!”

The evening’s main event was a bridge building contest. Attendees were given a vague set of guidelines and were left to their own devices. Creativity and teamwork were the critical currency and the crowd certainly delivered. The finished creations, which took on all shapes and sizes, were put to their final test when asked to support a large bucket filled with increasing volumes of water.

One by one, the bridges each failed in spectacular fashion sending Lego pieces flying into the night. At this point, the crowd of 100 or so hyper-competitive observers took on a "Lord of the Flies" feel, chanting for blood at every opportunity.

A-type tendencies aside, the event was a huge success for both the engineers and their host. Real friendships and professional relationships were built. At the same time the fun-loving attitude of Silicon Beach’s favorite company was further solidified.

Unfortunately, no one got in the hot tub, but this will certainly not be the last opportunity. The event was actually called the “First Annual Silicon Beach Lego Challenge” so get your skills ready for next year. In the meantime, the Penthouse will continue to host regular soirées for those fortunate enough to get the invite.