The magic of Hack Day

Even after seeing Hack Day work internally a bunch of times and now twice in the open format with external developers I’m still amazed every time. There’s something magical about the event.

Yes, ok, obviously, if you attract a bunch of creative people, give them the right kind of stage to express themselves and an audience of peers to listen to them then you are going to be surprised one way or another. And if you add some rules that make it feel like a game, then the competitive spirit will naturally motivate people to reach further.

It seems obvious now, but it amazes me all the same. I’ve never really experienced anything quite like it in the workplace.

In many ways, the experience both as a host and as a participant at the event feels similar to the intensity and even panic you get working at a startup that suddenly feels like it’s turning the corner. Everyone is operating at full speed. You know you’re on to something hot. But you have no idea what will happen next…and you’re pretty sure that you will fail if you stop running at full speed.

It’s also a little bit like the mid point in the sport season when you’re on a team that might actually win the championship this year. You know you can do something great, but you have to focus and make it happen. Intuition takes control of every decision. There’s no time for analysis.

One of the powerful lessons of Buddhism is the idea of letting go of the things we want to control. It’s incredibly difficult to throw an event where the outcome is so completely unknown. I can’t tell you how much time and energy we spend trying to remove all the rules and controls and precedents that come with being at a high profile company like Yahoo! in order to run Hack Day the right way.

Asking people to understand the event without experiencing it is a tall order. There’s always a “this will never work” look on their faces while you tell them that we invite a bunch of people over to build stuff. And then comes the panic while the actual hacking phase of the event silences the socializing aspect from earlier in the day. It can be uncomfortable hosting a party for a bunch of people who aren’t talking to each other.

This long quiet period carries on into the night, essentially a hum of keyboards banging away and murmers amongst team members, where you start to wonder if any of the hacks will be any good or if there will be enough to present or if anybody even cares. Part of you also knows the magic is happening right now…brains are crackling and the creative fire is blazing amongst these people who are intently focused on their computer screens.

The demos are a good indicator of the success of the event, but reading the follow up posts out in the blogosphere brings it home for us as hosts. Like the bride and groom after a wedding, we’re never totally sure how well the event went until people tell us. Here are some of my favorite quotes about Hack Day London:

Josh Clark: Lightning! Blimps! Submarines! And, um, Machine Tags!
The event was thoroughly engaging and altogether humbling. The amount of know-how, creativity and sheer geekery in the room was overwhelming. It’s just plain exciting to be part of a profession and community whose frontiers are expanding so fast.

Neil Ford
All in all, it was a fantastic, if tiring, two days. The total number of hacks presented at the end was 73, all of which were of a superb standard. I think it was impossible to leave the event uninspired.

Ryan Morrison: Land of the Living
I loved the event, I had one of the best times of my life and it’s re-inspired my love of getting down and dirty with code.

It’s incredibly gratifying to know that people enjoy the event as much as we enjoy putting it on. It isn’t an easy event to run, and knowing that people get something real out of it makes it all worth it.

If you were there at Alexandra Palace at Hack Day, we would love to hear what you’d like to see next time. We’re always looking to improve it. We’re watching the blogosphere, so post away, or feel free to comment.

Photo: Andy Piper is hot

I don’t get a chance to review products often enough these days. But when I heard about Freebase I knew I needed to dive into that one as soon as I was able.

Fortunately, I was invited only yesterday to take a peak. And I’m officially joining the hype wagon on this one.

Someone once described it as Wikipedia for structured data. I think that’s a good way to think about it.

That image leaves out one of the most powerful aspect of the tool, though. The pivot points that are created when a piece of data can be interlinked automatically and dynamically with other pieces of data creates a network of information that is more powerful than an edited page.

The Freebase screencast uses the movie database example to show this. You can dive in and out from actor to film which if you wanted could then carry on to topic to location to government to politician to gossip and on and on and on. And everything is editable.

Now, they didn’t stop at making the ultimate community-driven relational database. They exposed all the data in conveniently shareable formats like JSON. This means that I could build a web site that leverages that data and makes it available to my site visitors. I only need to link back to

But that’s not all. In combination with the conveniently accessible data, they allow people to submit data to Freebase programmatically through their APIs. They will need to create some licensing controls for this to really work for data owners (NBA stats data and NYSE stock data, for example). But that’s getting easier to solve, and you can see that they are moving in that direction already.

Here’s a brief clip of the screencast which shows some other interesting concepts in action, too:

Suddenly, you can imagine that Freebase becomes a data clearinghouse, a place where people post information perhaps even indirectly through 3rd parties and make money or attract customers as others redistribute your data from the Freebase distribution point. They have a self-contained but infinitely scaleable data ecosystem.

I can imagine people wanting to manage their personal profile in this model and creating friends lists much like the typical social network except that it’s reusable everywhere on the Internet. I can imagine consumer goods producers weaving coupons and deals data with local retailer data and reaching buyers in highly relevant ways we haven’t seen yet.

Freebase feels very disruptive to me. I’m pretty sure that this is one to watch. And I’m not alone…

Michael Arrington: “Freebase looks to be what Google Base is not: open and useful.”

Jon Udell: “Freebase is aptly named, I am drawn like a moth to its flame.”

Tim O’Reilly: “Unlike the W3C approach to the semantic web, which starts with controlled ontologies, Metaweb adopts a folksonomy approach, in which people can add new categories (much like tags), in a messy sprawl of potentially overlapping assertions.”

John Markoff: “On the Web, there are few rules governing how information should be organized. But in the Metaweb database, to be named Freebase, information will be structured to make it possible for software programs to discern relationships and even meaning”

In some ways, it seems like the whole Web 2.0 era was merely an incubation period for breakthroughs like Freebase. Judging by the amount of data already submitted in the alpha phase, I suspect this is going to explode when it officially launches.

The Hack Day London Video

I’m heading back home from Hack Day London tomorrow. What a spectacular event.

I did my best to capture the behind-the-scenes action this time, as I think the Hack Day event process itself is really interesting, too. Of course, sharing the day-to-day work would be frightengly boring, but you can at least get a sense of what happens the day or so before Hack Day starts in this video here:

What’s easy to forget is that the event process itself is treated like a hack. We break the rules. We invent on the fly. We don’t know if it will work.

Anyhow, there’s more to come, I’m sure.

(Apologies for the horrible editing in this video…it’s my own hack contribution…unpolished, experimental, and a little bit broken.)