Our Hack Day on Friday once again left me in awe of the hackers at Yahoo! In sheer quantity of hacks, we exceeded all prior Hack Days, and the quality seemed to be higher than ever. Our panel of judges included some of the top executives in the company and even one of our co-founders (David Filo). Mike Arrington at TechCrunch was there and has a great summary. I’m really pleased that we were able to arrange for Mike to join us — it was gratifying to get his outside perspective on what we’ve been doing.
I had a few final thoughts based on various comments I’ve been reading around the web, hearing from co-workers, etc. Before I get to those, I want to make very clear that this is a “we” thing. I’ve been organizing the Hack Days since our first one in December, but it’s always been a broad effort across all levels at Yahoo! I’ve had different people jump in to help make it happen each time, whether it’s a product manager going to pick up trophies or a PR person coordinating food delivery. For each Hack Day, I’ve had enthusiastic support from the top levels of the company. Of course, the hacker turnout and effort is what really makes it all successful, so the biggest kudos go to them.
First, at least based on what I’m aware of, I think what we’ve been doing structurally with Hack Day is unique among large companies like Yahoo! We did our first large-scale Hack Day back in December with hundreds of participants and it’s only grown from there. While we were certainly inspired by startups (which I pointed out in my prior post), pulling off a Hack Day for hundreds and thousands of engineers across several offices and sometimes even different countries in a 10-year-old company is a different sort of organizational hack. Even Microsoft with its 60,000+ employees put together a Hack Day with only 75 participants and in a very specific business unit, which suggests to me that size doesn’t make it any easier. The fact that we have been able to pull off such a large-scale event across Yahoo! is a not only an indication of the enormous energy of our developers, it’s a testament to the strength, vision, and support of our upper management (one of my favorite photos from the day is the look of pure joy on our CFO Sue Decker’s face in this photo I took from the podium). Of course, I’d like to know if I’m missing some examples out there of large-scale Hack Days or similar events — anyone know of any? (Just to get it out of the way, I think this is a different approach than the Google 20% initiative, a program that has its its own imperfections.)
Second, I think the overall looseness of our Hack Day is unique and very intentional, but ultimately difficult to pull off the larger a company is, which makes what we’re doing at Yahoo! all the more remarkable. Companies of all types are naturally very goal-oriented and there is always the temptation to create constraints on activity to nudge that activity in a very specific direction to meet some sort of short-term need or goal. There’s no denying that Hack Day has immediate positive business implications for Yahoo! but the constraints are few and are only put in place to prevent completely unproductive anarchy. If you think this is easy, it’s not. There’s always the temptation to form committees, add more rules, and create a more heavyweight process. We’ve avoided that so far (again, a testament to both our engineers and upper management).
Another positive outcome of Hack Day is the spontaneous emergence of people from within the organization. There are lots of stars at Yahoo! but the company is large enough that you might not meet some of them. Also, some hackers are shy and hesitant to show some of the personal stuff they’ve been working on, but the shyness seems to melt away on Hack Day. Since hierarchy is completely meaningless on Hack Day, it’s all about how cool your hack is, not the org chart. On this Hack Day, I met Dave Glass, a self-described “6 foot, bald, tattooed biker that just happens to be an extreme geek.” Dave won an award for his hack and blogged about it. Dave has only been at Yahoo! for a few weeks and just moved to California. How many people get to stand up in front of hundreds of co-workers in their first few weeks — not just other hackers but top company execs — and show their stuff? That’s magic. (We also had a few interns show their hacks as well — see this comment from intern Richard Crowley on TechCrunch).
The large-scale Hack Day model isn’t perfect by any means and needs to be tweaked in a million different ways, but it’s a functioning organism of its own at this point. Out of all the things that I’ve been involved in during my career, I have to say that I’m proudest of my contributions in getting Hack Day off the ground.
Commentary around the web: Jeremy Zawodny, Dav Glass, Michelle Hedstrom, Gordon Luk
P.S. a note on the awards
Here’s the complete list (and as Mike Arrington noted on TechCrunch, the awards were not the primary incentive):
Best Overall: Swati Raju, Dan Rose, and Peter Anick
Best User Experience: Deepa Joshi, Paul Yiu, Cecil Balzen
Most Money: Aaron Stein, Joshua Rangsikitpho, Sumit Chachra, Steve Spencer, Cody Simms, Dave Zito, Yu Shan Chuang
The “Why Did You Wait for Hack Day?” award: (a tie)
#1: Shankar Venkataraman, Subodh Shakya
#2: Gordon Luk, Mirek Grymuza, Vince Maniago
Best Use of APIs: Dave Glass
Most Unexpected: Rahul Nair
People’s Choice: Mega Hack Team (Leonard Lin, Gordon Luk, Edward Ho, Kevin Cheng, Daniel Raffel, Cameron Marlow, Jonathan Trevor)