In August, I had the opportunity to attend a hackathon* in San Francisco. The event invited people from the sponsoring businesses, online applicants, and members of the local tech sector to come and “hack” challenges in a workplace that is now majority-millennial. Teams formed at the beginning of the event, and I partnered with three talented digital design and business analysts. We entered our team in the Work/Life Balance category, and at the end of the weekend, we won!

Oh yeah, and none of us knew how to code.

So how did we win? Lots of other teams in our category had impressive feats of high-octane coding, including a web app to calculate varied compensation packages and a personal chatbot assistant. However, a lot of teams set out to write exciting code and do cool technical things that did not solve actual problems. One team created a 3D virtual reality meeting space on a phone that you could visit with a VR headset. The only issue? Someone already made that.

My team, lacking the coding skills, didn’t go wild with the technical possibilities because we simply couldn’t bring them to life. Instead, we focused on the core business problem first; in this case work/life balance. We knew that work/life balance is very important to millennials, so the problem was to design a solution that lets individual people live meaningful lives according to their own needs and desires.

We came up with a self-designed balance package. We saw the concept of Work/Life balance as constantly in tension, each end pulling and fighting the other in a zero-sum world. We resolved that tension by ignoring ways to balance the two opposites; we wanted to fit work into life, and to let people work as part of a balanced life.

Specifically, we tackled the idea of the standard benefits package offered by most employers. 401k, health insurance, life insurance, discount benefits, company sports tickets, maybe even a wellness subsidy… These are the core pieces of a benefits package. You’d find them anywhere. And maybe you don’t need all of them. For me personally, life insurance is a waste of funds – I don’t need it and I don’t want to pay into it.

Benefits packages are only one-size-fits-all. That’s the problem we honed in on at the hackathon. We used technology to provide customization, to let people select benefits to meet their specific needs. We prototyped a web/mobile app that would allow employees to choose specific benefits off a menu, spending out of a common pool of “tokens”. A working mother may want flex time to pick up her kids, while a sports fan may want more opportunities to use the company’s season sports tickets. Let each of them have what they want, and they’ll be happier, more productive employees.

By leading with a problem and using technology as the means to solve it, we were able to come up with a winning idea. New/cool/exciting technology for its own sake is useless; technology must be the means to a greater end. Successful ideas (and businesses) solve problems.



*Note: The team listed under the Work/Life Balance section was the second place winner. This is because the event organizers are cowards.