Hacking creativity: Making time for innovation

Yahoo!7 and Atlassian are two companies that are giving their employees the space to be creative with hack days

Everyone wants to do it, but the 'how' of innovation can often feel elusive. For Craig Penfold, the head of technology at Yahoo!7, innovation often involves late nights, pizza and, at around 5am in the morning, a Spotify playlist of '80s trash.

Yahoo!7 is one of a number of companies that have found value in instituting regular hack days, or hackathons, that offer employees the chance to step away from their day-to-day jobs and focus on scratching an itch – prototyping a new product or improving an existing one – for an intense 24-hour period.

Yahoo!7's hack days have proved so successful that the company, which is a 50-50 joint venture between Seven West Media and Yahoo!, increased their schedule to twice a year from the original annual event.

The 24-hour hack day starts late on a Thursday, with employees from across the company, not just in Penfold's team, stopping what they're doing and registering to participate. Teams often work through the night, fuelled by fast food, the occasional beer, the aforementioned dubious selection of music, and a breakfast of bacon and egg rolls for those who make it to the next morning.

The hacking finishes at close of business Friday and on the following Monday, 90-second pitches are presented in front of the whole company and prizes are given out for different categories, such as utility hacks and the best externally facing hack (and when it's needed, Penfold says, the 'flugtag' award – "it's a great idea but it would never fly"). For the first time, in the April hack day an external judge participated: James Filmer, the chief innovation officer for media agency UM Australia.

Business value

Hack days aren't just a feel good exercise for engineers, however. "In the lead up to hack day I always get people from across the business, from sales, from finance, saying 'When's the next hack day? When's the next hack day?'" Penfold says.

"Even those who aren't directly involved are heavily supportive of it and come out of it really inspired. And getting those people who have those ideas but can't necessarily do them to try to pitch their ideas to an engineer and partner them up is great for the business as well."

Those ideas that come out from Yahoo!7's hack days (minus, perhaps, the flugtag-award candidates) have a concrete life beyond the 24 hours of sweat, blood and '80s pop, feeding innovative ideas back into the business.

Ideas coming out of hack days have led to adjustments to the technology roadmap, notably with Yahoo!7's popular social TV app for mobile devices, FANGO. The most recent hack day, in mid-April, saw teams pitch ideas ranging from enhancements to mobile offerings to adding more sophisticated real-time analytics to the company's online network.

In all, around 45 people took part in the April hack day, working on 27 projects, with some of them also being submitted to Yahoo!'s global hack day, which draws entries from offices in the US, Beijing, Taipei, Bangalore as well as Sydney.

ShipIt

Hack days are also a big part of life for engineers at Atlassian, an Australian company that produces a range of well-known collaboration tools for software developers. Originally known as 'FedEx days', the 24-hour hackathons were renamed 'ShipIt' days after some friendly prompting from the US courier company.

The software company holds ShipIt days every quarter, and they have also been integrated into the company's on-boarding process, with new graduates who join Atlassian participating in their first ShipIt day as part of the Hack House program.

ShipIt days have been held at Atlassian for some eight or nine years now, says Matt Ryall, a Sydney-based software development manager who works on the company's wiki-based collaboration offering for enterprises, Confluence.

"The goal is really to get the engineers in the company to propose and implement new ideas and prototype some of the things that we wouldn't do in our normal schedule of work," Ryall says.

"We have a roadmap planned out for six or 12 months for most of our products, and those features are well specced out and planned in advance. So ShipIt days give the engineers a chance to try something a little bit different...

"They have a problem or an idea for the product that they think might be useful, and then they've got 24 hours to try to hack something together and present it to the rest of the company."

The best ideas can gain traction within Atlassian and either be incorporated into existing products, or in some cases, such as the company's testing tool, Bonfire, become new products in their own right.

At the end of a ShipIt day, employees use an online voting tool to cast a ballot for their favourite idea, and prizes are handed out. Categories include performance and security, and not infrequently an existing Atlassian customer will be brought in to participate in the judging.

"Personally, it's a wonderful reminder of why I wanted to get into programming in the first place," says Atlassian developer Edith Tom.

"During university, I fell in love with that emotional rollercoaster that comes with working on a really hard programming problem and being able to solve it, then being able to share that elation with your peers.

"And working at a place where other people are as easily compelled as I am to code into the early hours of the morning [is] a really nice feeling."

Tom worked on one of the winning projects for a recent ShipIt day, improving the Space Sidebar in Confluence to present information that's relevant to the contents of a page once a user begins to scroll down.

"We strive to come up with new ideas all the time and give people the opportunity to work on them – that's something that is quite important to people who apply for a job here," Ryall says.

ShipIt days are one of reasons developers enjoy working at Atlassian, Tom and Ryall say, but they are also a way of sourcing new innovations that deliver concrete value to the company (the company also runs a Google-esque 20 per cent program that lets engineers spend a fifth of their time on projects of their own choosing).

"Just looking at the product I work on, Confluence, we had probably 20 or so projects in the last ShipIt day and out of those, four or five I think are good, solid projects that we're looking to add to the product now," Ryall says.

"Those are things that would not have been considered previously and are things that add value to our customers in ways that we hadn't considered before."

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