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Hack Day 2016: Tackling Challenges in Four Places at Once
Percolate has a tradition of having a hackathon around this time each year. Prior to every Hack Day we solicit project ideas, assign a project lead, and then let everyone in the company sign up to join one of the teams. Interestingly, the projects last year endeavored to tackle the challenge: how do we scale internal tools and culture to newly-opened remote offices? This year, however, the projects (with a few exceptions) centered on a new challenge: how do we get more done together from far away? The Hack Day itself took place in four offices at once — or rather, with staggered starts by timezone beginning in London, then New York and Miami, and finally San Francisco. And we used the day to find ways of removing the barriers of distance — be it the distance from New York to San Francisco or the distance from our desks to the coffee.
Before we discuss what was built, let’s talk about the value that events like these provide.
Building a Culture of Innovation
Why do we do Hack Days? First and foremost, it bonds the team in ways that other events cannot. We saw people that have never worked together come up with and build things that were inspiring, original, fun, and simply awesome. The local culture of each office comes in the project presentations (we may all speak English but Londoners, New Yorkers, Miamians, and San Franciscans often speak different languages). And perhaps, most valuably, we see first-hand how diverse teams work better and go further with greater ideas.
Second, it fuels innovation in the company. The ideas go beyond what you’d expect and get people not only thinking about how to make the company better, but also do so in areas that they normally wouldn’t venture into. Marketers were cutting code, engineers were painting doors, and people from all parts of the company were leading teams.
Third, strangely enough the output of Hack Day seems to last well past the end of the day — and beyond just the projects that were built. People who have never interacted now know how they can help each other in their day jobs. The photos taken during the day exude the energy of Hack Day and are constantly featured in presentations, slides, backdrops, and even our own ads. The stories from the day also seem to become Percolate lore and come up in conversation throughout the year too.
Now let’s get into the details.
The Brilliance of What Was Built
Lots of the projects were created to improve life at Percolate, whether it was improving upon our weekly Wins meeting, kicking off a Percolate podcast (stay tuned!), making a system for voting on a Hack Day project winner, overhauling our 1-on-1 meetings, or just knowing when the coffee is ready.
For people wanting to get their hands dirty in a real way, we had teams doing general office improvements. One of our NYC office floors received a facelift, one team was tasked with coming up with a Percolate-themed ice cream flavor, from our London office, a team rigged up a hammer attached to a lever and string to open a door from the opposite side of the room, and another team built a very technical system to detect bathroom occupancy status, which we won’t get into here. There was also a team who did a fantastic job creating a board game about running a startup.
On the more experimental side, we had teams across offices building Rube Goldberg machines to varying levels of success, and another team came up with a personal workout training system. The technical details of this one were hazy, but the system consisted of a button that, when pressed, called the Percolate Personal Trainer to appear on the nearest screen in the office to coach everyone in the vicinity through a 30-second workout.
One big difference from last year’s Hack Day, is that we now have multiple offices across the globe. We wanted the Hack Day to be enjoyed by all our offices on the same day. The key here — as it usually is — was lots of communication and elbow grease. It took eight people representing the participating offices working together to create a cohesive Percolate experience. Given the feedback we’ve received, it was worth the effort.
Another challenge is keeping everyone engaged for eight hours worth of “hacking”. There are some projects that can become very technical, be it making an API, building a website, figuring out how to interface with something, or soldering some wires together. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. We managed this by encouraging the team captains to split their teams into sub groups at the start of the day. These groups were tasked with putting together presentations for the end of the day meeting, making videos, coming up with ‘marketing’ strategies for the work, doing very scientific — and not so scientific — ‘market research’ and analysis, and, of course, building the solution. As it turned out the videos that were produced by some teams were a bigger hit than what was actually built, which proves yet again the importance of good marketing.
The last challenge was getting something finished in such a short timeframe. We solved this problem by asking the question very early on; “can you build it in a day?” We make this one of the stipulations for project submissions. While even the projects might seem feasible to build when submitted, reality hits as the day begins. The ambition of projects starts high and scales back as the clock ticks towards the end of the day, but that’s when the extraordinary creative kicks in. There’s a magic moment when teams realize that they have an hour left and launch into their last-ditch efforts to deliver something.
What We Learned
Some projects won’t last past Hack Day, and that’s ok. The arduinos connected to the coffee pot that measured the weight of a full pot of coffee and send a ‘coffee’s ready’ signal won’t still be connected next week. The websites built with twine and duct tape won’t see the light of day. There’s nothing wrong with this. Everyone learned something on Hack Day. We all had fun. We worked with people in the company we’ve never worked with before. We got to play with new technology. We got to broaden the scope of what we’ve experienced and built. The outcome of Hack Day wasn’t multiple projects, it was a better company.