The importance of Hack Day

Last week’s Yahoo! Hack Day was, as usual, an eyeopener. In addition to the creative hacks, I was hugely impressed that the co-founder of the company and CFO among several other key executives spent an uninterrupted afternoon watching and then judging all the hacks.

Photo: Yodel Anecdotal

The only other model for bridging the gap between top brass and ground troops that I’ve seen work successfully was at IDG when founder Pat McGovern conducted his annual handshake around the world during the holidays. He meets with every single employee of the company (2k plus), shakes hands, chats for a few minutes and, if available, hands the employee his or her bonus. He remembers impressive details from previous conversations and clearly challenges himself to make a tangible connection with each person’s contribution.

Everyone admits that it creates awkward moments, but the effort is appreciated by all and wins him both loyalty and credibility across the whole company.

At Hack Day, I expected Jerry Yang and Sue Decker to spend much of their time on their phones while engineers were working their hardest to impress the crowds. Admittedly, I didn’t make it through the whole afternoon undistracted, but the judges were engaged in every presentation that I did see. No doubt they were paying attention and learning things that will impact their future decision-making.

There’s always the question of whether the hackers are motivated more by peers or by bosses. In either case, the 90-second demo format is the closest thing software development has to the clean and jerk. I’m not sure I’d call it chest-thumping exactly, but don’t believe for a second that every hacker doesn’t hope to beat his colleagues with the better hack.