Top 10 reasons why Hack Day rocks

I joined Chad Dickerson's Yahoo! Hack Day Friday to try and work out some things that have been sitting on the backburner for a while now.  I'm an instant convert.  Hack Day is a trully brilliant idea.  

I'm not experienced enough to know the historical twists and turns of management philosophy, but this feels to me like a breakthrough, perhaps an unintended consequence of the need to retain talented people.

How do you explain the benefit of Hack Day in one sentence?  Hack Day bubbles up significant yet tangible product strategy advances from across the organization while simultaneously feeding all that workforce optimization and touchy feely crap without paying a team of expensive Stephen Covey robots to tell you what you already know.  It's also super cheap.

These are some of my personal observations about the day and what it offers both the participants and the company itself:

  1. Bonding.  For those of us who formed teams to complete hacks, we became dependent on each other.  We had to learn in a very short period of time how to get along in an intense environment and make something together.  In our case, we blocked out a conference room and did the typical dotcom fast-build along with the dotcom diet of pizza, coke, krispy kremes and chips.  We already knew eachother's workstyles, but elevating your game together to complete a mission forces some interesting dynamics to unfold.  You get to know eachother in a way that's more useful than any offsite I've ever attended (or led).
  2. Trust.  We gave ourselves a somewhat simple but potentially tricky problem where no single member of the team understood exactly how it would or should unfold.  We had to talk fast, listen carefully and adjust to each other as we progressed.  We had to expect that each member of the team would carry as much weight as they could and trust that whatever they did was as good as it could be.
  3. Fun.  It wasn't just getting jacked up on sugar and caffeine that made things fun.  It felt like a day off.  I turned down one meeting using the "I'm busy hacking" excuse, and the guy actually sounded apologetic for asking.  There was lots of trash talking and laughter.  At the end of the day, we were all disappointed that it was over...and excited for the next one.
  4. Competition.  Competing with external forces to win in the market can get pretty scary.  Competing with internal forces for some political agenda can get pretty nasty.  Competing for the sake of a competition, though, can be really healthy not to mention productive.  And the way Chad has designed the event, there are no losers except those who don't participate.
  5. Brainstorming.  The brainstorms that typically happen around here involve finding solutions to known problems.  Hack Day is a chance to break through the constraints of the known world and find far away problems that might actually be pretty easy to solve if you take the chains of daily routine off your back.
  6. Inspiration.  The idea of inventing something new can cause some inspirational run-off to the things that currently exist.  I've had some big ideas of where to go with some of the products I'm working on, but the world of possibility is many times larger now that I had a chance to step out of the current queue of to-do items.
  7. Energy.  When I was at The Industry Standard I couldn't afford to take my eye off the ball for even a moment in the day.  It wore me out.  But we were energized all the time by a leader who expected us to push the envelope and lead the market.  We had to be smarter than the companies we were writing about every day.  Yahoo! has a more steady and strong, more polished and professional approach to management.  But it's also smart enough to know that it needs injections of energy like we had at The Standard.  Hack Day is now my steroid of choice.  It felt like 1999 all over again.
  8. Dirty hands.  Non-engineers are officially invited to contribute to Hack Day, but they aren't really welcome.  Managers and product people have a way of ruining things with roadmaps and schedules and analysis and meetings.  I'm as guilty as the next one.  Hack Day is a chance to break through  all that and to just build.  If you are a manager or a PM, you better have some skill to bring or you're just in the way.  You have to get your hands dirty and actually do something.
  9. Creativity.  We not only had to be creative with our approach to solving a problem in a small amount of time with a small team, we had to be creative on the fly as problems came up.  We ran into a few snags right at the end of the day including a sudden injection of overambition on my part that took us on a wasteful detour.  When you're operating in high gear, you have to shift from action to problem-solving and back to action at the drop of a hat.  It requires multiple layers of creativity to deliver something you're willing to share in a competition.
  10. Deliverables.  I'm now looking at this hack and some of the others and thinking about how to turn them into real products.  The value of the day is going to continue for weeks and months to come.  Even a good offsite has a very short impact lifespan.
When I was hired here my manager talked about wanting to give me some room to try some things outside of my daily responsibilities.  We didn't formalize a 20% rule or anything like that, so I've just alotted extra time now and again whenever I've been able.  I think the 8 hours of Hack Day yielded more tangible results than 8 months of squeezing in an hour here or an hour there to try stuff.

I can't give away what my team built nor any of the other 100 or so brilliant ideas that came to fruition, but let's just say that there are some pretty wild game-changing moves in the works even if only a handful of these hacks make it to market.


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Showcasing Our Culture of Innovation, One Hack at a Time
Weblog:  Yahoo! Search blog
Excerpt:  In his email instructions for Yahoo! Hack Day participants, Chad Dickerson writes: "Hack Day is ultimately 'by hackers, for hackers' whether you're an engineer, a PM, designer, surfer, editor. . . whatever! The rules of Hack Day are simple:...
Posted:  Wed Apr 05 01:35:21 EDT 2006
Top 10 reasons why Hack Day rocks