Why are Hack Days so good

By Rob McNair

Facebook had its 31st Hack Day last week. It’s part of the Facebook’s culture that has seen new features such as Timeline, Chat, the Like button, Video, the “People You May Know” feature and even elements of their Photos platform were created. So what are they and why are they so good?

Hack Days or Hackathons are events in which developers (or anybody really) collaborate in small or large teams to build something. From a company perspective the developers can get to build something outside the limitations of their main role at a company. A rule at Facebook is that developers are not allowed to work on something that they normally work on.

Hobbyists sometimes have Hack Days to learn more and extend their knowledge whilst shipping a cool product at the end of it, this is something that I do regularly with friends.

Facebook, being the innovateive company they are, don’t limit this to development either, they will hack anything with. Check out this video from Facebook’s Director of Engineering Andrew “Boz” Bosworth on what hacker culture means at Facebook.

From a company point of view Hack Days can be an invaluable tool, and something that should be done frequently. In a large number of companies the product owners are generally Marketeers, these are usually the people that drive the work from conception and into the project specification that then drive development teams work. Hack days’ work the other way around by letting the developers build the product and by giving the freedom.  As a developer it’s a time to shine and get noticed and there is nothing to stop the best teams receiving bonuses and other perks for contributing.

How to set up your first Hack Day

  1. Determine a time and place for it to go ahead, ideally you want to be somewhere really where the team is really comfortable. Some Pro hack days and competitive hack days even hire out hotel suites or function rooms just for the occasion. It is usually best for a venue to help inspire the creativity process. Hack Manchester {Link: http://www.hackmanchester.com/ } for instance is in the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, an absolutely amazing venue for any event. Try not to use your office or home as the office is the second home and home has way too many distractions
  2. Ensure you have a decent internet connection; this can be a killer for developers especially if they are in anyway reliant on web services.
  3. Determine the limitations of the hack day, if you want the teams to hack everything that’s great you can see your development team explode with ideas. If you just want them to improve a certain process or enhance some functionality this can also be good but your delelopers are normally limited by their day-to-day work. I’d recommend giving them access to hack anything and let them shine.
  4. Open the data and give them unlimited access to any APIs that they will need.
  5. Get plenty of snacks and energy drinks and be prepared to give your staff a day off afterwards if you do it on a week day.
  6. Set up prizes and offer incentives for people that are there. The more fun you make it, the more people will want to be involved.

If you want more information on hackathons…

Hack Manchester –  http://www.hackmanchester.com/ (I’ll be there)

Facebook Hackathon Page – http://www.facebook.com/hackathon

Rails Rumble- http://www.railsrumble.com/

This post was written by Rob McNair

Rob has experience advising some of the worlds most iconic brands. He thrives on helping improving social media knowledge within organisations with the ultimate goal of making theirs brands more social, transparent and accountable.