I have to admit — since Hack Day ended, I have been struggling with how to contextualize it. It’s hard to put a nice neat wrapper around something that was so profound for me. For the people who were there (and you can read for yourself), it felt like a defining moment. The best way for now is to point out some of the people who made it happen and tell some of the inside story. In some later posts, I’ll probably go through some of the principles that guided us in planning Hack Day (e.g. who we invited and why, approaches to making such an event work), but for now, I just want to provide some backstory and point out some of the people who helped make this happen. There are literally hundreds of people in the mix, so I apologize in advance for those who I have missed. This will be my first attempt “official recounting” (as Bradley put it in his post). Like all good stories, some things will be left between the lines, of course.
Before I get into the narrative, if anyone out there is wondering how we pulled this off, I offer one clue: total pros rolling up their sleeves to do whatever needed to be done. I’ve always been surprised at how intelligent people ascribe self-limiting qualities to organizations that they don’t really have to accept. Large companies are “slow.” Small companies are “agile.” “They” would never let us do this. What happens when you work in a large company and you are able to leverage the size of the organization to form a lean-and-mean ad hoc team with broad expertise (technical, management, legal, security, networking, etc.) on a moment’s notice? Something pretty powerful — you turn the cynical “they” who won’t let you do anything into the unstoppable “we” that won’t take no for an answer. I learned that inspiration might be the world’s only renewable energy source and it scales like a motherfucker.
Hack Day and getting things done
It’s really easy to lose sight of the fact that in all the excitement of having a rock star like Beck on our campus, our Hack Day efforts (internal and external) help us get lots of real things done. We launched a ton of new stuff. Don’t take it from me that Hack Day creates results, though. Ryan Kennedy writes of our last internal Hack Day (where he won a “Technically Sweet” award for a kick-ass hack that used the Yahoo! Mail API that we eventually previewed for Open Hack Day attendees): “It [the internal Hack Day on September 15] was the event that reinvigorated my efforts to get mail ready for show time.” Ryan’s post crystalizes for me the clear relationship between our internal and now external Hack Day efforts. Ryan built the Mail API, then gave it a spin at our internal Hack Day with his winning hack, then spent the next couple of weeks refining it before giving a talk about it at Open Hack Day. Then he stepped down from the podium and spent his next 24 hours working alongside our visiting developers to build hacks using the same API (for which he got some shout-outs from the stage — read Ryan’s post for more info). Four cool hacks were produced by external developers with this brand-new API (see the list of all the hacks). If this isn’t a very good thing, I don’t know what is — this is the web ecosystem in action. Hack Day works.
The birth of the concept
As Bradley said in his keynote, we decided to do this just a few weeks ago, really, though we were inspired by the experience of doing seven internal Hack Days on three continents (the photo at right is of me at the beginning of the very first one). To get started on the first public Hack Day, I set up an Upcoming page and when I had to choose the category, I chose “festival” for a reason. I didn’t think the world needed another tired developer conference in a too-expensive downtown hotel where we stood in a booth and handed out t-shirts while our attendees racked up double-digit mini-bar bills just because they wanted a Diet Coke in the morning (more on this in a later post, I hope). We didn’t need that stuff anyway — we’ve got an awesome campus with a lot of space, tons of classroom space, a fat pipe to the Internet, beautiful lush corporate green grass, a cafeteria that could house and feed an army, and thousands of multi-talented people. So we launched HackDay.org on August 25 and posted these words:
We’ve opened up Yahoo! from the inside out with our world-renowned Hack Day and from the outside in through the Yahoo! Developer Network. Now we’re opening up Yahoo! itself to a select group of hackers and other special guests for a weekend festival of hacking, camping (yes, the tents-in-the-outdoors kind – we have really, really nice grass), music, and good times.
Yahoo! Hack Day will begin on Friday with a free all-day developer workshop, then we’ll kick off a 24-hour Hack Day with an outdoor party into the wee hours, with special guests providing the soundtrack. More details later, but we guarantee it won’t be your usual corporate-wedding-band-for-hire leading the crowd through 2am group sing-a-longs of “Brick House.” Stay tuned.
Yahoo! Hack Day will continue throughout the night (in tents, in URLs, our cafeteria) and conclude on Saturday afternoon/evening with judging from a panel of luminaries and special awards for the coolest hacks. After nightfall we’ll close things out with another round of entertainment that you would be happy to pay for, except that you won’t have to.
I wrote those words, and it was both the vision and the project plan. The only thing was that we had no entertainment lined up and nothing else worked out, just an idea of the environment we wanted to create — that’s it. That was barely four weeks ago!
After we got the idea rolling, I sent an email out to our internal Hack discussion mailing list (something I seeded after our first internal Hack Day in December of last year) and said, “who wants to help put together a public Hack Day?” Within a few days, I had about 80 people ready to help: engineers, product managers, business development, attorneys. . . . name a function and we had someone step forward. No coercion by management, none of the browbeating you might see in a typical corporate environment, no silly corporate brainstorming exercises, no discussion of “branding,” no PowerPoints (not one!) We had one planning meeting to kick things off (it was our first and last meeting), and pretty soon, I was standing back and watching the magic. People stepped up. We needed t-shirts, and they appeared. PR pros called BBQ vendors to arrange food. Some of the world’s foremost CSS experts stuffed welcome packets. Hard core backend engineers offered themselves up as low-level tech support for the hackers doing their demos. I talked to our totally awesome facilities team about our grass and the sprinkler system (needed to make sure the ground wasn’t too squishy for the campers). At one point when we were setting up the wifi network on Thursday, the guys needed 200 zip ties and several hundred feet of ethernet cable. I sent an email out to my list of volunteers and within the hour, it all appeared (thanks, Kent). Punk rock.
This kind of thing happened over and over and over. It was magical to watch.
It’s an impossible task to get this right, but there are some specific people I wanted to thank. First, there’s Bradley. When I moved over to YDN, we started talking about a public Hack Day almost immediately and the idea started crystalizing. I honestly don’t remember exactly how the “crazy” Beck idea came up, but when it did, it was Bradley who gave me that patented Bradley look that said, “dude, this is TOTALLY POSSIBLE!” and quietly lit the fire under me to make it happen. I’m hoping that everyone out there has a boss like this one day. (It’s cool that Nina caught me taking a shot of Bradley with my Treo while he was doing the Filo-to-Beck intro). Some of my fondest memories of this whole process were high-fiving Bradley in various meetings as we started to get the sense of what we were planning. We just couldn’t wait to share what we were doing with the world. Thanks, Bradley, for making work so fun.
Kiersten Hollars (in the far right in this photo) totally rocks. Bradley gave some props to Kiersten in his post, but I just can’t say enough. Her official job is PR, but if you had a slice of pizza or a doughnut during Hack Day, Kiersten is the one who made it happen. That’s not to say that Kiersten was diminished to phoning in food orders because she is an absolute pro at what she does. She just wasn’t afraid to dial Domino’s when we needed it and that’s why this whole thing worked. I won’t deny that getting this done had some stressful moments, but Kiersten and I kept each other calm. Kiersten doesn’t write code, but she’s an amazing organizational hacker. Rock on, Kiersten.
Once we got the verbal commitment from Beck, Jackie Waldorph (photo) and Christy Garcia on our events team took that ball and ran with it, dealing with the production issues, the stage, the sound, security, and anything else related to the show. It was a gargantuan task that had never been done before. One of my favorite moments happened about half an hour before the show was to begin when I ran into Jackie and she said, “Now that he’s here, Beck says he wants to do a longer show.” Well, OK!
The YUI team put the whole excellent Friday agenda together along with Dan Theurer on the YDN team. In one of the key roll-up-your-sleeves moments, Eric Miraglia (photo) brought a wagon from home to help move welcome packets, schwag, and anything else around that needed moving. A wagon hack! Eric’s contributions were immeasurable, as were his entire team (led by Thomas Sha, who was enthusiastically involved from the beginning).
To the extended Open Hack Day Team, you guys totally rocked — all 80+ of you. And a gigantic thanks to the YDN team that I am so freaking proud of: Dan, Kent, Matt, Jeremy, Jason, and Vernon. It’s hard to believe that this team really just started working together.
A big thanks to Tara Kirchner, whose various acts of heroism made a lot of the key ingredients for Open Hack Day fall into place. Micah Laaker gave us the logo after we told him we were stuck and had 20 minutes before we had to send a design to the printer, or no t-shirts.
For setting up our high-performance wi-fi network from scratch for all the visiting hackers, Tim Stiles (photo) and Tom Keitel (photo) deserve HUGE props. I also have to give a big thanks to our security team (network and physical), but I can’t discuss what they did or they would have to kill me. I used to be totally immersed in the world of enterprise IT, so I know IT rock stars when I see them. These guys fit the bill.
No one deserved this photo with Beck more than Nicki Dugan. And to that certain skateboarding hacker in our midst — thanks, man.
Mike Arrington was an excellent moderator. Keeping the demos moving is more grueling than you might think, and he handled it with great humor and skill.
As Bradley mentioned in his post, this crazy idea quickly gained support at the highest levels of Yahoo! and we appreciate it. David Filo outlasted nearly everyone on Friday night, and I was inspired by all the other Yahoo! execs who hung out with the hackers. Like Bradley, I also want to give a shout out to Jeff Weiner, the man who cleared the way for our very first Hack Day and helped us grow it at every turn. And to Ash Patel for encouraging us to make it even bigger when we moved into his organization.
Last but definitely not least, I wanted to thank the hackers who came out. You guys came from far and wide with nothing but faith that you were going to have a good and productive time partying and hacking with us. I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything anyone has written about Open Hack Day and I am more inspired than ever by your feedback. It’s a real honor to have put this together for all of you and I’m looking forward to seeing you around. (Remember, all the “winners” are listed here — but everyone was a winner. Seriously.)
And then there was Beck.
One of the hardest things about putting this whole thing together came when I was on the phone with Beck’s agent and manager very early on and they asked me if Yahoo! had ever done something like this before. I swallowed any indie cred I had built up in prior conversations and said, “Well. . . . we had Sugar Ray once.” Silence. “I’m really sorry I had to say that.” They sensed my pain at bringing that up and graciously moved on to the business at hand. All I know is that it’s gonna be a hell of a lot easier next time when I can say, “we had Beck last year.”
For the record, Beck’s entire team was incredible to work with, from the puppeteers to Beck himself. Beck could have jumped in his tour bus after the show and fled the building (especially since his dressing room was our gym), but he hung out and talked with us, even making some rounds to check out the hacks after the show.
The puppeteers were so impressed with us, that we converted one of them to Yahoo! Search. Read the comments on this post:
you yahoo’s were all amazing! if only you had a need for puppeteers on staff…i’d so be there!
for the record, you all have been so great…i’ve switched over to yahoo for my homepage search engine. it’s a little thing i know…but i do what i can.
Getting Beck was not so much about getting a “big name” (though he admittedly was), but more about bringing someone in who we saw as a hacker. Some people hack music and some people hack software. Some people even hack puppets. Mixing all of that up was one of the great joys of the event (aside: a special shout out to Jonathan Grubb and the Rubyred Labs guys for their help with the video). We saw Beck and his band as participants in the whole event, not just a stage show.
Love and community
Susan does an excellent job of connecting Hack Day back to Burning Man, FOO Camp, etc, and I’ve listed some of my own inspirations in the past. The interesting thing about Hack Day to me is that the spirit behind it all lives every workday in the halls of Yahoo! The best thing about Hack Day is that when it was over, I went back to “normal life” working alongside the same people who made it happen. It’s too early to tell what this all means yet, but for us back at Yahoo! this is at least different from the “temporary community” of a Burning Man.
Ultimately, I think the reason this worked so well and people were blown away by the event is that we took the genuine love we feel for each other and our joy in working together and we reflected it out to the hacker community, and they gave it back to us. If you’re the cynical type and you’re thinking, “yeah, whatever,” then don’t take it from me. There’s Ben Metcalfe’s post and many others but my favorite was Kristopher Tate’s post about the Yahoo! “family”:
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.
Perfect. See you again next time.