Hack Day at Pluralsight
You’ve heard the phrase before, maybe even attended one, but what really is a hack day? What does a hack day look like at Pluralsight? Can I really work on whatever I want? Could I really create something revolutionary like Gmail, or Post-It notes? While no two hack days are the same, we’ll look at one of the longest and shortest days you can spend at work while not working. Confused? Great! Let’s explore this radical, but not so new, idea together.
Just what is a hack day anyways?
Let’s get some definitions out of the way. Hack day -- also known as a hackathon, hackfest, or codefest -- could be defined as:
a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including subject-matter-experts, collaborate intensively on software projects.
While that definition is a mouth full, the key point is intensive multi-discipline collaboration.
Where did hack days come from?
While opinions differ, it’s generally believed the first hack day occurred at Yahoo in 2005, organized by former exec Chad Dickerson. But this concept of allowing employees time to explore creative and sometimes crazy ideas goes much further back. Take a trip with me to the 1940’s to a little company called the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, which you might know as 3M today.
From its founding around the turn of the 20th century to the 1940’s, 3M had survived years of failed prospects and red ink in their books by adhering to a simple creed: Innovate or die. With that early history, 3M launched an employee program in 1948 called 15 percent time. Loosely defined as 15 percent of an employee’s time can be spent on moonshot ideas and creative collaboration. Fast forward to 1974 and 3M scientist Art Fry.
Fry came up with a clever invention. He thought if he could apply an adhesive (dreamed up by colleague Spencer Silver several years earlier) to the back of a piece of paper, he could create the perfect bookmark, one that kept place in his church hymnal. He called it the Post-It Note.
Since then, free time has been experimented with at several famous companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Atlassian, and Google. The latter which is rumored to have produced such products as Gmail, Google Earth, and others from employee free time. In many cases, hack day ideas are not directly related to the day to day business, therefore few companies are able or willing to give such time to employees. But all is not lost if you have a killer idea, more and more companies are holding hack days to foster innovation.
How does a hack day work at Pluralsight?
At Pluralsight we’ve held several hack days, each a little different from the rest, but generally in Engineering we adhere to some basic ideas:
1. A Hack Space
In the weeks leading up to the hack day a space is provided, either physical or virtual, to allow anyone interested to post their idea and seek like-minded collaborators. This idea of self-organization is critical for allowing creative collaboration and often leads to interesting groups forming.
2. A Timebox
Once the day arrives and teams have formed, the hack day is timeboxed, usually in a 24 hour timeframe. This is usually to generate that intensive part mentioned earlier. 24 hours to start and finish a project? Challenge accepted!
3. Show And Tell
Every team gives a short 5 minute presentation at the end of the 24 hours introducing what they’ve accomplished. This could be a slide deck, a video, or just a guy standing at the front of the room sleep deprived and over caffeinated trying to remember what day it is. Preferably though, this would be a live demo. The point is to share our successes and failures.
This may be the most important: lots of snacks, food, beverages and fun. Hack days are intense; to get the best ideas out of everyone for 24 hours they need to be focused. This of course means not worrying about anything else like that pesky notion of hunger!
Combined, these five ideas provide for a work day unlike any other. You can be working together with people you may never work with normally, which can be exhilarating and infuriating at the same time. This can provide the most cross-functional team experience you might ever have. You are also focused on an interest rather than a responsibility. Or in other words, you get to spend a day working on an exciting pet project rather than your normal day to day team responsibilities. This can be one of the most exciting parts about hack day.
What's an example of a hack day project?
What might a hack day project at Pluralsight look like? To act as an example, my last project combined several interests. I had previously explored Slack bots, had an interest in machine learning, and I wanted to help Pluralsight grow. In thinking of those, I decided to create a Slack bot that utilized a machine learning generated neural network to predict customer retention after the first month of activity. It worked and mostly worked well, achieving 67% accuracy on historical data. Was my idea ever shipped to production?
No, and that’s okay. It worked and was an awesome idea, but it wasn't the most important thing for the business at that time. What was important was that I learned a ton in a short amount of time, and had a lot of fun doing it.
What can a hack day do for you?
The benefits of holding a hack day are numerous, but also slightly different for each company. At Pluralsight we enjoy the free exploration of creativity, exposure to new technologies, unique collaboration, fostering of new relationships, generating some killer product ideas, and just having a fun time together outside of work at work.
For you in your workplace a hack day can also be a wonderful opportunity to try out that fancy process you've heard about, e.g. pairing for a day, or doing test driven development. Your hack day can be not just the project you want but the practices you want as well, and that can be half the fun!
If this sounds like a fun idea, why not give it a try? Who knows, maybe you could collaborate on the next big thing at your hack day!