How to host a virtual hackathon: Q&A with Alexandre Gueniot

Alex Gueniot

Alexandre Gueniot is a principal software engineer in the Bay Area, working on the PowerPoint team. Every year since 2016 he has volunteered his time to support our local hackathons hosted by the Bay Area Garage across our Experiences and Devices group. This year nearly all planning was thrown for a turn when circumstances began forcing everyone to work from home.

Alex’s unabashed enthusiasm for showbiz, an industry that lives by the motto “The show must go on,” meant the hack would still happen across the PowerPoint team. The solution – a video-first program in a “TV news” format complete with fake commercials, graphics, and Alex himself as the host. We connected with him to learn how we can all make our virtual presentations, large or small, more enjoyable.

When you first heard the hackathon would be fully remote this year, how did you react?

In this kind of situation, I try not to panic. I say to myself, “This is interesting. Now we have new constraints, so we have to find a new solution.” I’m an engineer, so I’m accustomed to getting new problems to solve. This is also very similar to the nature of a hackathon; keeping a calm head and finding ways to make things work.

What was your process for finding a new format?

What I didn’t want to do was just have a Teams meeting and let everybody present. We all know how many of these meetings become people saying, “Can you hear me?”, “Is my mic on?” Somebody telling someone else to go on mute. Another person having trouble sharing a screen. We had nearly 50 projects to present and I didn’t want to have three hours of that, so I had it all pre-recorded.

I told all the participants they had to keep their demos to less than three minutes and asked for them on a Friday, so I could compile a full clip over the weekend. In some ways, it takes more planning to do it this way than a live event. Live events you book the room, invite people up to the podium, and have them do their demo. For virtual events, everything that can be done in advance should be done in advance — especially if you want to add in fun things, fake commercials, animations, and whatnot.

What kind of things did you do to set the tone?

We work hard, but we like jokes. I wanted to keep it less formal, hackathons are a place to be a creative after all. All the talk show hosts are doing their shows at home right now, and in a way that makes their shows even more watchable.

To get us kicked off in that direction, I started sending video reminders to get projects submitted versus emails. Within the videos, I started using props I had laying around to liven things up like a turkey costume left over from a previous hackathon near Thanksgiving. I jokingly threatened them all that if their demo came in without audio, I’d record their audio for them — so when one person said he was tempted to do it, I changed the audio on his presentation to be a documentary on honey badgers. I played the real video after though to make sure every project was shown in the best light.

That helped set the tone, and you could really see how the team picked it up. People using music, pop culture references, and graphics in their editing ended up being compelling, regardless of the technical topic. I was blown away by the response. Everybody tried their best to show their message, but in a fun way, in a way that captivated the interest of the people watching it.

(A commercial made for our completely remote hackathon by PowerPoint team member and hackathon co-organizer, Alex Limon. Sound up to hear her cat, Mochi, purr!)

If it was pre-recorded, what measures did you take to keep things interactive?

We watched the video collectively — almost like a watch party — and still had live reactions, because we watched in Teams and had chat going. Everybody on the team was sending memes and jokes and commenting on the demos. That allowed us to have a live conversation, even though everything was pre-taped.

Within the presentation itself, I made silly robot voices for project introductions and fun “commercials” people had never seen. There was one for dog food – what we call projects in testing – where everyone sent me footage of their dogs eating and I just cut it together into a commercial. One of the dogs, Gizmo, recently recovered from a surgery and her owner was ecstatic when she learned he would be a movie star for the day. He completely stole the show with his big, cuddly eyes. These added elements meant we didn’t necessarily lose spontaneity.

We also have a team in India we wanted to include, but a live event wouldn’t work with their time zone. This combination of “pre-taped” and “live” meant they could watch the show when they woke up, and not lose out. The new format also ensured their videos were watched collectively and vice-versa, so we could all belong to the same event.

Also, it’s much more re-watchable, which is important because people are working from home, with  families around, schools out, and other time restraints, which make it hard to sit down for a full three hour meeting. This gives them more flexibility to pause and re-start to fit their schedule; I’m using the Netflix model, so they can watch it when and where they want.

What sort of feedback did you receive after the hackathon?

We did a survey after the fact and overall, it was positively received. In a post event survey sentiment showed 92 percent were extremely satisfied, and it was informative not just entertaining. Now we’re thinking we might do more of these, regardless of whether things are back to normal or not. This kind of presentation is smoother, it’s shorter, and simply more enjoyable for everyone to watch.

If you are interested in joining Microsoft’s employee hackathons across the Bay Area, learn more about our open roles here: