Hack day matures

There’s a noticeable difference between the hacks presented at Yahoo!’s internal hack day today and the ones from a year ago when the program began. It’s like the end of pre-season when the starters come out to show everyone how it’s done. Ash Patel even joined in with a very smart idea of his own.

When hack day began I think there was this excitement in creating purely for the sake of creating. That energy is definitely still core to what people are doing, but people are now combining business strategy along with their bits of code magic. Rather than funny greasemonkey overlays and simple mashups that challenged ideas, today we saw clever uses of core Yahoo! platforms that could actually alter revenue performance.

There were some hilarious demos, too, including the first paper-based hack and a great Wii hack.

The formula for the event is clearly a winner at this point and one that I think could be applied in any medium to large sized company. Chad’s original concept is still spot on:

“Hack Day at Yahoo! has minimal rules: 1) Take something from idea to prototype in a day; 2) Demo it at the end of the day, in two minutes or less (usually less)”

and more here:

“Hack Day is a day for the celebration of hackerdom, a tip of the hat to the artists among us who express themselves in code, a recognition of the pure joys of creation. Yes, hackers are artists. As I wrote in one of my old InfoWorld columns: ‘If art is making order out of chaos, then software developers are artists at the highest level.’ “

I didn’t think hack day would work as an ongoing thing 9 months ago or so. I thought it would lose its edginess or get coopted by marketing people or frustrate coders whose great ideas didn’t make it to market.

In fact, the opposite has happened. The hacks are getting more clever and harder to top. Powerpoints fail every time unless used purely for laughs. And people across the organization are productizing the hacks and thinking differently about how to get these ideas into the real world.

Interestingly, Jerry Yang still sits through every hack (nearly 5 hours of demos this time!). I love the fact that people can engage him from the stage and joke with the other executives who are judging.

Hack day is really part of the process at Yahoo! now. It’s so effective that it’s getting hard to imagine how the company unlocked smart, innovative and actionable ideas without it.

The new confidence of Yahoo!

Let’s call it YAB, Yahoo! After Beck. Or maybe it should be the Hack Day Revolution. Whatever it is, something transformative happened at Yahoo! last week.

Photo: Yodel Anecdotal

If a year ago someone told me that Yahoo! would support an event where several hundred coders would be invited to sleep in tents on our lawn and get a free concert from a big time musician that people actually care about I would have laughed. Asking these coders to hack away on our APIs (most of which didn’t exist 12 months ago) to build something just for the fun of it would have seemed totally out of character.

But something changed.

It probably started with the Flickr acquisition, and then it advanced with the internal Hack Day program. And finally, Friday night at 9:30pm, this change reached some kind of conclusion or rather blasted off from the launchpad when the Beck video began rolling.

Bradley Horowitz observed in his keynote that hacking is like jamming with a band. The experience of playing together, trying new variations on things, learning from eachother, creating art purely for the sake of creating is what it’s all about. You don’t have to produce songs to enjoy creating music.

Watching Beck and his band muck around on stage mocking themselves and all of us was a pleasure. They are experimental for the sake of experimenting. They reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously.

When I saw the Beck Hack Day video posted on the corporate blog the next day, I realized that something profoundly new and important happened. I’m not sure I fully understand what that is, but it’s very different and very important.

Maybe everyone here is riffing on the idea that Yahoo! is about people not algorithms. Maybe openness is the new voice we’re all singing with. Maybe everyone stopped worrying about the rhythm of the stock price.

My guess is that it’s all those things and much more. Yahoo! finally has the self-confidence it deserves.

The participants of the Hack Day event gave us a mirror to see how this new face fits, and it seems to fit well. There are some nice quotes here:

I think the best thing that describes Yahoo! is family — Yahoo is an amazing, close family that was gracious enough to open themselves up to over 450 outsiders (including myself) over the last two days from the lowest levels to the very top.

All in all, a good time. I am exhausted, and I did not even stay up all night, as some people did (many camped out on the lawn). I met some good people. And I got to hack on computers, a thing I’ve been enjoying a lot more of lately.

This event was absolutely beyond any of my expectations. I was expecting a Mashup Camp-style event with a hundred or so people. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the event. Heck, I knew very little about the event before showing up.

And you could take all that metadata and gas receipts and empty Protein Bar wrappers and bar codes and SD drives and extra batteries and Amazon upsells and proprietary Newsgator synchronization APIs and long tails and short walks of long piers, and still not come up with the simplicity of the gesture Chad and Yahoo and Beck and Doc and Dave and we all give when we wave our hands in the air and thank whoever we damn please for the life we are breathing. That’s the critical mass I’m saying.

Reflecting back (and from the inside), I don’t think that Yahoo! Open Hack Day could have gone any better. It blew past my personal best-case expectations. The biggest problem is where to take it from here. But that’s one of those good problems. 🙂

It’s a good question. Where do we go from here? The best part is that nobody really knows, yet. That in itself is as emblematic of the transformation as anything…not knowing the answer yet confident that we are moving in the right direction.

How to give a 90-second demo

After observing several Hack Day presentations and conducting a few screencasts of my own now, I think I’m seeing a formula for doing a 90-second demo.

No format will replace charisma. And charisma won’t make a bad demo good. But these guidelines might at least give the presenter a baseline. And I’m sure this will help people who are competing at Hack Day.

People can usually articulate more than two words per second without sounding like one of the Kingsmen, but that doesn’t leave any room for dramatic pauses or potential hiccups in the presentation. So, a good 90-second demo will probably come out to maybe 150 words.

What can you communicate in 150 words? Not much.

The meat of the demo obviously must consist of a walk-through, but it’s often the beginning and end that screw up the whole thing.

The most common mistake is a poorly balanced intro that either drags on too long and makes the audience anxious or one that is too short and forces the audience to contextualize things in their own heads when they should be following what you’re saying.

Spend little or no time introducing yourself. Save that for the end. But spend 20 seconds defining the problem. Answer these questions:

  1. What’s wrong or broken?
  2. How do people deal with this problem today?

Then get to the meat. Step the audience through a story one click at a time. Show a screen. Explain what is being shown. And then describe what will happen next. Tell them where you plan to click or what action you’re going to take and then do it. Explain the result and then repeat, one action at a time.

If at all possible, build the story to a climax. Each step from click to click should get progressively more interesting. At least point out the less dramatic elements of the demo first and build to the most exciting ones at the end. At about 80 seconds, you want to reveal the POW that will get everyone clapping.

If you get your POW before 80 seconds, great. Crack a joke and get off the stage. Don’t drag it out if you’re already done.

If all goes well, eyes will light up and cheers will wash over you.

Finally, close with some kind of contact information. Announce your name and the name of your demo during the applause, and leave before the applause finishes.

Here are a few hints that might also help:

  • Script it. Write out what you plan to say. It will take you about 10 minutes, and then have someone read it out to you so you can hear it for yourself.
  • It’s never a waste of time to deliver a one-liner that will get laughs. If you have something funny to say, say it, without hesitation. Humor wins fans universally and buys you a fully engaged audience.
  • The result of working code is often what presenters are most proud of, and there’s a tendency to go from intro to result too quickly. The audience wants to get inside your head and follow your thought process. If there isn’t an actual clickable demo to show, then walk the audience through a couple of visual diagrams that show what is happening behind the scenes.
  • Make it big. The demo screen is never big enough, so change your screen resolution to be as big as possible without completely distorting the demo.
  • Point to things on the screen with your finger. Don’t assume people are following your mouse. Stand in front of the screen and reach with your finger to show them what you’re talking about.
  • Use dramatic imagery even if it isn’t technically correct or specifically relevant. Particularly when getting mixed in amongst a bunch of other demos, you want to burn a visual image into people’s memories. Nobody will remember a word you said, but they will all remember what it looked like.
  • If your demo fails, don’t sweat it. It happens all the time. Be gracious and tell your audience how they can reach you to talk about your idea and perhaps see a demo later.
  • Don’t pretend like a failing demo is going to come back “any second now”. Demo audiences are forgiving, but they’re rarely patient.

There are lots of common public speaking tactics to take with you on stage, too, but I would never proclaim to be an expert in that.

Those who can’t do, teach.

Lastly, here are some interesting resources on presenting:

  1. How To Get A Standing Ovation, Guy Kawasaki
  2. Behind The Magic Curtain (Doing demos with Steve Jobs), Mike Evangelist
  3. 10 Tips for Successful Public Speaking, Toastmasters.org
  4. Presentation Zen blog, Garr Reynolds
  5. Wikipedia: Public Speaking

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.