One Monday afternoon, a dozen or so of us employees left the Audible building in a charter bus. There wasn’t much tying our group together—we spanned every department including Product, UX, QA, and Tech. We had all simply volunteered to run a workshop at Science Park High School, a magnet school just five minutes away in Newark, NJ.
We had prepared what we dubbed an “ideathon,” a simulation of the product life cycle from idea to implementation. No one was certain about how our young audience would receive us. The school was comprised of all grades, 7–12; what would be the spectrum of backgrounds we were going to interact with?
After the students had filed in, Ian, our Senior Director of Technology, started us off with a few quick probes. “Who knows what a product manager is? Who can tell me what QA stands for?” The students were quickly giving solid and well-spoken responses. I was taken aback; the words “Computer Science” had been so foreign to me in high school, but it was as if software development was just a second language for these students.
Our team members took turns talking about being Product Managers, UX Designers, Tech Developers, and Quality Assurance Testers in detail. It was especially fun for me to listen to other department members speak about their experiences—they understood their role not just as a set of tasks and to-dos, but as an integral part of a team. One of our designers, Lisa, described UX as a way to translate confusion and constraints into elegant solutions. Vishal, a developer on the Web team, described Tech like being a problem-solving craftsman that makes those solutions real and concrete.
We then split into groups and commenced our ideathon. Each team had to think of a product they’d like to build to improve their lives. Students immediately began scribbling on sticky notes and throwing out ideas.
Two Audible members lead each group, first paring ideas down to a specific set of features, then fleshing them out into visual designs. We prompted students to think critically about their product and empathize with their users.
With a few surprise minutes at the end of the “ideathon,” the groups had time to use CodePen to develop a real webpages, breathing HTML and CSS life into the students’ Sharpie-and-poster-pad sketches hanging on the walls.
Finally, time was up. The lively workroom converted to a demo stage. Each group gave five-minute presentations of their ideas to the rest of the room with varying degrees of budding theatricality— “Ladies and gentlemen! Do you suffer from having too many left over school supplies at the end of each year? (Masterful dramatic pause). Have I got an app for you today!”
It was truly the students’ energy and eagerness that drove the ideas, the product development, and the feeling that we had all worked together on something great.
Each group described a clear need case (e.g., “Seniors are graduating with school supplies they no longer need”), walked through their designs, and finally debuted their websites by projecting their laptop screens onto a wall. Every group drew collective fascination as their fellow students saw their clickable, scrollable prototypes.
Finally, we left to a round of applause and cheerful goodbyes. The bus back to Audible was abuzz with chatter about the students— one’s glorious presentation panache, another’s budding penchant for programming. We had been buoyed by the engaged, receptive, and insightful students. While we had “lead” the activities that day, it was truly the students’ energy and eagerness that drove the ideas, the product development, and the feeling that we had all worked together on something great.