Last weekend I was a judge for a local geek-a-thon called HackOTT (Hack Ottawa). The concept, started in Toronto by entrepreneurs Leila Boujnane from TinEye and Cory Reid from Freshbooks, brings together extremely talented developers for a day (a Saturday, no less) to prove their technical brilliance and see what they can build in six hours – from concept to working prototype.
At the end of the day Saturday there were 15 mostly-fully functional web and phone applications that worked, looked great, and were useful (and / or cool).
I was impressed with:
- the quality of the applications
- the quality of the ideas (there were only developers, no executives)
- the originality of the applications (a lot of diversity, not all based on current “fads”)
- the excitement of the developers to show off their stuff
- that developers voluntarily “worked” on a weekend (several had driven / flown over 2 hours to be there)
Some innovative companies have implemented hackdays for their employees with very impressive results.
At Linkedin, there is one day a month when all developers work on building their own application with some pretty awesome results. Over New Year’s one of their developers built a cool Linkedin App called “A year in Review” that shows you all the people in your network that changed jobs. It’s a great visual representation of people in your network and is pretty handy for an end-of-year reminder.
To be clear, this wasn’t a corporate project, but a single developer who came up with the idea, built it, sent it around to some people in the company, and got it out the door in a couple of weeks.
Linkedin isn’t the only company doing regular hackdays. Google famously implemented their 20% personal time philosophy that allows developers to work on new technology – or technology unrelated to their primary work – one day a week.
How It Works
Hack days are very simple to setup. It’s a one-day event where everyone meets in the morning. If you’re a developer who has an idea for an application, you post it on a whiteboard. Other developers who are interested in your idea can “signup” for your team and work with you to build the application (note: generally there is a limit of 1-3 people per team to keep them agile). The teams go off and “hack” (code) for the day. At the end of the day each team presents their working prototype (not powerpoint slides) to the rest of the developers. You can have judges or let the group “vote” on the best applications.
What I think is vital to the success of hackdays is that there should be no “executive direction” (ie. we’re looking for apps that accomplish this corporate mandate) but having some parameters can help focus efforts (the applications must use one of our core technologies, use a supported computer languages, etc…).
Why It Makes Sense to Create Hacker-Days
If you’re not already, I think you should implement a once per month hackday for your developers. There are a lot of great benefits including:
- Technical proficiency: Allow developers to “flex” their technical muscles – try a new language, platform, or integration
- Innovation: Create something new and original
- New perspective: Get developers to think more globally… not just about code but about applicability
- Culture: Build new relationships – allow developers to team up with developers from different departments
- Recognition & Quality: Building peer recognition helps build pride and will help everyone raise their game
- Community: Increase job satisfaction and loyalty by helping people connect through something their passionate about
The cost of letting developers work on something that isn’t directly related to their daily grind one day a month (5% of the time) is far outweighed by the value and potential opportunities that can come from this kind of exercise.
Extend the Concept Beyond Computer Hackers
Hackers are passionate about technology. What are your other employees passionate about? Can you find ways to allow them to self-organize, come up with a plan in short-order and drive for a solution in a limited amount of time? I think a lot of departments could apply the same concepts and achieve the same results as hackers.
The Bottom Line
You have experts in your company that are passionate about what they do. Give them an opportunity to work with their peers to see what they can do applying their skills and you might just transform the culture, energy, and output of your organization!