How Collaboration is at the Heart of MBRDNA

September 13, 2018

As a leading tech company devoted to rethinking the automobile, MBRDNA employees want to stay at the top of their game. During regular working hours, the employees are designing the car you’ll drive in several years or they’re perfecting the algorithms allowing cars to drive themselves. They’re re-inventing the dashboard or they’re coming up with an app that makes your trip easier.

At other times, the usual rules are broken. Processes are streamlined, and MBRDNA engineers, designers, coders, artists and interns are encouraged to work together in small teams to compete for the honor of being the best project at the annual hackathon.

“We’ve been doing this every year since 2013 — and it’s meant to be a ground-level thing,” says Rigel Smiroldo, Senior Principal Engineer, Machine Learning at MBRDNA. Each of these regular events has a theme. This year, it’s “Show Cars 2019”— but what that title means to each team is for them to figure out.”

Teams tend to form organically. “Some are put together as soon as we announce the event, others come together at the last minute. Ultimately, we want our people to break down the silos that naturally form in companies,” Smiroldo says.

“We want them to know each other in the hallways. Approach each other when they have a work problem. Or just have lunch together.”

Smiroldo is quick to point out that while there are guidelines to the event, such as you have only 24-hours to both come up with your idea and execute it, “We don’t enforce many rules. You can go with your friends, stay in your team, but we design the event so that it’s a disadvantage to do that. There are considerations for best team spirit, most ambitious idea or best design. You also need to show how your idea interacts with the Mercedes-Benz brand. If you want to win, you need to have cross-pollination within your team, or you’ll fall short.”

The hackathon taking place in Sunnyvale is open to anyone at MBRDNA and teams are small, so no one gets lost in the shuffle. Interns compete — and high-level designers are working alongside them on an equal footing. Usually, six to eight teams made up of about four people each compete for the honor of winning. It’s all about empowering employees to find creative solutions to real problems, while also giving them a safe place to fail.

Drones and Karaoke

The hackathon — “we don’t have a clever name for it,” says Smiroldo — has a history of innovation. One year, someone mentioned that they had a drone at the office. Team members, under pressure because they had only 24 hours to execute a project, immediately took on the drone and developed an idea around it. They came up with a use for it that matched the Mercedes-Benz brand — and won.

Another year, a Google Glass device (that was also apparently lying around the tech-heavy office) was re-developed so it could detect songs playing on the car radio. The device would load the lyrics into the user’s line of sight, and then it would judge your karaoke singing, in real time.

Other entries have had more-obvious applications to the automobile: Recently, a car was “painted” with electronics that allowed the driver to change the car’s color at a whim. At times, the results are just funny. At other times, they surprise everyone — causing executives to wonder if the product could be put to actual, commercial use.

Perhaps, we’ll see something come out of the event that makes it past the walls of MBRDNA, but that’s not the goal. The real goal is to keep employees collaborating and communicating. For that reason, MBRDNA hackathons are open to all departments.

“We’ve found the best way to build connections among people is when you’re sitting in the trenches, sitting elbow-to-elbow, and sweating it out. You build relationships that form outside the walls that way.”

“There are examples of a group of people who are on different teams on different floors, who don’t have any work-related reason to get together — and we see them having lunch.”

Also, Smiroldo points out, “Because people are jammed together, and they’re not subject to management procedures, they decide things very quickly. People come to realize the value of putting people together in a room and collaborating. Slowly but surely, it changes the company and makes people work better together.”

Collaboration: That’s how MBRDNA proves itself as an innovative place to work.