Hack Day 101 (and why it’s essential for your business)

Employee led innovation is nothing new.

Google 20% time is acknowledged for producing a number of key product innovations like Gmail and Docs (although it’s understood they have officially killed off that perk). Over at Facebook, founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke extensively of “The Hacker Way” in their IPO filing to the SEC.

What is not as widely known is that employee time can be traced all the way back to Post-WW2 in the United States. It was 1948 and multinational manufacturer 3M instigated “15% time“. In 1974 an employee by the name of Art Fry used this time to develop a means of applying an adhesive to the back of a piece of paper and the post-it note was born.

In addition to the Silicon Valley titans, several companies have embraced employee time to foster innovation, all with pretty cool names: BlueSky (Apple), [in]Cubator (LinkedIn), Hackweek (Dropbox), The Garage (Microsoft), ShipIt (Atlassian).

But why should your company do it?

  • Get your people forming new relationships, right across the business
  • Get your people into the habit of innovating and thinking outside of the box
  • Get your people playing with new technology, ideas or processes
  • Give your people the opportunity to truly own something
  • Get your people having fun!

So, what does realestate.com.au (REA) do?

We (REA) started “Hack Day” (HD) back in March 2010 with employees given two days a quarter to work on ideas of their choosing. Initially the bastion of a very few IT geeks tinkering with code and hunting down obscure bugs; over five years and 18 events the programme now sees the entire company taking part.

Since the beginning, we have built HackDay relationships with several companies around Australia and improved the process to maximise participation across the business.

Here is how we do it.


Original HD Video which covers the first couple of years of Hack Day

Getting Started

Regardless of how often you do it the most important thing is to save a date well ahead of time (up to two months in the case of quarterly events) and start planning. We have four key areas we focus on for the event:

  1. Committee & advanced planning
  2. Theme, promotion and participation
  3. The Hacking Event
  4. The Showcase or presentation at the end

It all starts with a good crew

A committee or “Hack Day Crew” should include:

  • Drivers – those who have the innovation fire in their belly
  • Influencers – not necessarily managers or people in positions of authority, but people that can encourage participation, people who have the respect of their peers (the ‘class president’ types)
  • Organisers – people who know how to get $hit done
  • Financiers – make sure there’s at least one crew member with access to budget
  • Helpers – people you can assign jobs to

Our crew at REA started with just a Driver and an Influencer and quickly grew to include some Organisers and the all important Financier. A common denominator was that all of these people were early adopters prepared to risk the odd wrist-slap in pushing out the early HackDay events before early and late majority acceptance was earned. Risk takers are important!

Another critical person or people who won’t be part of your core crew is the Patron – a senior or executive level leader who is passionate about Innovation and who will shield your crew if necessary. At REA our Patrons have ensured that the wrist-slaps were no more than just that – a slap on the wrist 😉

A theme, promotion and participation

Pick a theme: it could be as simple as focusing on a segment of your business, an industry trend or perhaps a competitor. Or, just run an open and free event.

By focusing the event you bring everyone on the journey – not just the hackers but everyone in the business who attends the presentation and understands the rationale for the theme.  We have looked at internal productivity, focused on mobile first, helping our sales staff and now external charities as themes to break the mould of just working in the property vertical.

Posters for our "Mobile First" Hack Day where the theme encouraged everyone to ensure they delivered a mobile prime experience

Posters for our “Mobile First” Hack Day where the theme encouraged everyone to ensure they delivered a mobile prime experience – of course this site is common in most cafes.

As your HackDay grows in stature, use a theme to target a part of your business who are perhaps less enthusiastic about HackDay than others. If Finance are giving you a hard time, consider a theme aimed at driving revenue, efficiency or cost-savings. Facilitate sessions with the Finance teams to drive HackDay ideas, and then work hard in the background to ensure a good team picks up the good ideas and delivers on them during the HackDay. Using this technique broke down all remaining barriers for us at REA.

Creating a consumer focused Hack Day we encouraged all hacks to be explicitly about finding ways to learn more about user behaviour.

Creating a consumer focused Hack Day we encouraged all hacks to be explicitly about finding ways to learn more about user behaviour.

Get the word out early. Funny images, memes, cat pictures with text, themed posters strategically placed throughout the building are an easy way to reach employees. One near the fridge, one near the coffee machine, one in the toilets and one near the main exit never fail.

Tailor your poster to your theme and popular culture (where appropriate). In this case for our Valentines Hack Day we opted for famous, er couples!

Tailor your poster to your theme and popular culture (where appropriate). In this case for our Valentines Hack Day we opted for famous, er couples!

Setup an online space to inform everyone, track ideas and suggestions and encourage debate. We use our intranet to post HD ideas which can be voted up or down and comments added. This gets people talking, brings everyone from product, sales, IT and beyond into the conversation where the real ideas form. Teams are encouraged to organise ahead of the event and start thinking solutions.

Our Casa.it (Italy) colleagues at their first Hack Day

Our Casa.it (Italy) colleagues at their first Hack Day in 2015

By connecting people across the business it breaks down barriers and forms coalitions amongst colleagues who otherwise may never have met. No one is excluded from participating and by bringing their particular expertise it ensures a diverse array of opinions and experience. Especially helpful is connecting those who are the face of the business (sales, accounts, customer care) with those who help engineer solutions behind the scenes (product, IT, design).

The actual hack day event

Hack Day at REA is actually two days, always a Thursday and Friday. Structure goes something like this:

Thursday 9:30am: Standup or kickoff

Modeled on an agile standup, participants take turns to quickly explain what they are working on, what they plan to do and any help they need (or perhaps don’t need). For example, a developer might explain their project then call for a designer, another developer and a product manager.

Our CEO addresses the kickoff

Our CEO Tracey Fellows addresses HD18 kickoff

When we started out it was 20 people in our kitchen and standup went pretty quickly, especially if teams formed ahead of time or people had no ideas to present. Now it has evolved to be a company wide celebration where anyone and everyone is empowered to get up and explain their idea.

Once it has concluded, everyone is encouraged to mill around and start a conversation. Teams form organically as people express interest in what they heard and projects they wish to explore. Your crew needs to work very hard in the 30 minutes after the standup to connect people: people with an idea with people looking for a team; a team looking for a particular skill with suitable help etc etc. This work is invisible, but if done well it will ensure wider participation (especially from the introverts in your company) and ultimate success.

Now it’s time for the hacking

Teams self-organise, co-locate and settle in to the hacking all through Thursday and in to the evening. At 6pm everyone breaks to share dinner and drinks together and an informal discussion about progress ensues. Teams are welcome to continue hacking—although it is never enforced—and some will work through past midnight.

Breaking for dinner together to recap the first day of hacking

Breaking for dinner together to recap the first day of hacking

Returning Friday, teams continue to hack all the way up to the magical deadline of 3pm and the showcase.

Time to present your wares hacks

The energy and excitement is palpable throughout the entire building during a showcase. Since Hack Day 8 we have abandoned traditional presentation techniques (aka death by powerpoint) and opted for The Marketplace modeled on a trade show, farmers market or convention.

Death by Powerpoint (DbP) is where participants stand up before the entire group and present their projects in turn, typically for only a few minutes. Interest wanes rapidly, the energy level plummets, faces in the crowd become buried in mobile phones, and the dead air during the clumsy exchange of video cables between presenters laptops is excruciating.

Whatever you do, don’t succumb to DbP. Go the market route!

The old "Death by Powerpoint" Hack Day Showcase

The old “Death by Powerpoint” Hack Day Showcase

The Marketplace allows attendees who are short of time or interested in a specific project to get a quick overview and leave; while DbP makes means people feel they have to commit to an entire session of presentations. The Marketplace allows many one to one conversations and questions between the presenter and attendees which can quickly evolve into full discussions. It creates a more meaningful connection, transfer of ideas and ultimately a better relationships between people who are often meeting for the first time.

Each team sets up in a designated space demarcated by a helium balloon, an easel with some artwork or a poster hanging from the roof. Teams are encouraged to design a pitch poster which promotes and sells their idea within their space. A smaller copy of the pitch poster is also used for the voting station.

To bring people from outside of IT to the showcase we “letter-drop” a small HackDay promotional leaflet to every desk in the building, inviting people to visit the Hackers Showcase and share in a drink and some nibblies. It works!

Every attendee to the showcase is afforded a vote – we have used fake money (venture capital – strongly discouraged as you need to count it!), poker chips and pebbles. We have experimented with multiple votes per person to allow them to share the wealth and on occasions only allowed a solitary vote per person.

Voting station with Christmas stockings from our Hack Day in December 2012

Voting station with Christmas stockings from our Hack Day in December 2012

Voting station with a bucket and pitch poster for each team from HD14

Voting station with a bucket and pitch poster for each team from HD14

We even considered a digital solution however good ol’ fashioned voting stations have endured. Each team has a bucket with their pitch poster in front of it and it provides a physical decision for each attendee to contemplate their votes and manually cast it.

Hack Day Pitch Posters

Hack Day Pitch Posters give each team an identity

The Marketplace soon reaches fever pitch with hundreds of people from all over the business milling in and around the teams listening to pitches and asking questions. We serve drinks (alcoholic and non) and food to everyone as the marketplace is open for 2 hours. Attendees are free to wander around each stand and engage with the hackers directly, while hackers tailor their pitch on the spot to suit their immediate audience; be it a sales, technology, design or product focus. So much better than DbP!

Personal Showcase

A marketplace showcase enables a very personal and engaging exchange of ideas

Remember that this marketplace is also a celebration of the outstanding talent of your people so make sure it’s a party to remember.  Food & drink & general merriment are well-known ways of luring your voting public to drop by the showcase to see what is going on. 

When we embraced the marketplace format we let our crew’s creative talents run free with marketplace theming.  HD10 “X marks the spot” became a pirate themed Hackers Cove.

1920's speakeasy prohibition era Hack Day theme

Hack Day #13 “1920’s speakeasy prohibition era” theme

Unlucky for some, HD13 was transformed into 1920’s casino speakeasy complete with roulette table and poker chip voting.

Hack Day #14 “Go Wild” theme complete with jungle and a pop up bar!

HD14 “Go Wild” saw the office overtaken by a wild jungle with a safari tour leader & wild animals prowling through the market.  A lot can be achieved reasonably inexpensively with a bit of imagination.

These days we don’t need so many bells & whistles to encourage attendance in but we do make sure that we keep the atmosphere festive.   


HD over the years – this video tells the story of our modern event

The presentation

At 4:45pm the voting station is closed and everyone gathers for the presentation. Since HD4 we have offered a trophy for the People’s Choice Award™ – awarded based simply on the total votes awarded to a team.

The Hack Day Trophy

The Fabled Hack Day Trophy, itself a Hack Day project

In the interests of diversity we have also created awards:

  • Technical Innovation (geeky, crazy cool tech)
  • Best Product concept (commercial savvy if not entirely delivered)
  • Most Production Ready (ready for the prime time no matter how big or small).

In years gone by the team with the best designer would typically win. Multiple awards ensures that you can recognise diverse qualities and strengths of the hacks.

We usually have one of our Patrons making the closing speech while the crew frantically counts the last of the votes; then the Patron will present the awards to conclude the event – and then it’s time to celebrate.

A new wrinkle added recently

In an effort to ensure maximum output can be achieved in the two days, we have now added another day to each quarterly event – the Iteration Zero. Modeled on another agile principle, Iteration Zero (iZero) is the time get your house in order, form alliances, develop a strategy, establish test and production environments and ultimately chart a course for your hack.

We hold iZero about 3-4 weeks ahead of the actual Hack Day event. This gets teams starting to think about their project, engaging the appropriate people around the business on the suitability and viability of the idea and in some instances chipping away at some of the work in their own time.

Hack it Forward: Time to give back

In October 2014 we ran our first ever Hack it Forward Charity Hack Day, focusing on social issues and hacking on outcomes to benefit the wider community. We partnered with 4 charitable organisations.

The Hack Day poster for our first ever Hack it Forward Charity hackathon

The Hack Day poster for our first ever Hack it Forward Charity hackathon

The amazingly analogue hack of knitting blankets for orphans in Africa

The amazingly analogue hack of knitting blankets for orphans in Africa

In addition, participants were encouraged to collaborate with other community groups or charities on a project of their choice. 10 teams were formed in total with a focus on delivering real value to people in need.

Hack Day followed the same formula as outlined above with representatives of the charity attending both iZero and also coming in to work with us through (in some cases both days of) Hack Day to achieve genuine outcomes.

Hack it Forward Big Issue Team

The Big Issue team at Hack it Forward 2014

Incredibly 6 of the 10 projects shipped to production after the event and we continue to support those organisations. Hack it Forward will be an annual event, and in 2015 we look to expand the scope of charities and invite external participants in to hack on ideas.

Conclusion

Hack Day @ REA has evolved dramatically in five years well beyond just IT and product to be a truly company wide event with hundreds of participants and everyone in the office attending the showcase.

The cultural impact has been profound and the energy, excitement and engagement amongst everyone is unrivaled.

Hack Day has always been about how and why we work the way we do. What we achieve is simply a bonus.

A modern organisation cannot do without it.

If you’d like to come and see one of our HackDays in action or need help and ideas in running your own HackDay, we’d love to hear from you!

Don’t hesitate to contact us via email hackday@rea-group.com or the twitters @hackday_rea