Hack Days – Creating New Product Innovation

A hack day (also known as hackathon, hackfest or codefest) is an event in which those involved in software development collaborate intensively on software projects over 1 to 5 days to create new product innovation.

Where does the idea come from?

Companies that run hack days include Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, NASA, and many more.  I was convinced that we at QSR International should also be running hack days to empower our talented staff to create more inventions for our customers and employees.

QSR International’s company values are articulated as collaboration, innovation, and celebration.  Our hack day goals supported our company values and were summarized as:

  • Collaborate with Peers
  • Innovate the Platform, Product, or Process
  • Celebrate the Demonstration of Ideas

Choosing a theme

We undertook our first hack day in October 2012 and set the theme ‘Invent the Future’ which was inspired from the quote ‘the best way to predict the future is to invent it’ by Alan Kay. Our second hack day was in March 2013 and set the theme ‘Leadership through Innovation’ which was inspired from the quote ‘innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower’ by Steve Jobs.  We will continue doing more hacks days every six months.

What’s involved in a hack day?

In the lead up to the hack day we created a wiki based charter of ideas originating from customers that had not been explored.  Participants were encouraged to choose one of these ideas or propose new ideas and seek out interested team members.

Our first hack day involved 37 employees working on 15 unique project ideas over 2 days.  Given the success and interest in the first hack day, the second hack day involved 49 employees working on 17 unique project ideas over 2 days.

Each day started with a stand-up meeting to describe each project idea and raise any assistance requests.  On the afternoon of the second day an exhibit was held to demonstrate and celebrate each of the project ideas to the whole company.

Quality and diversity - how do you judge the best hack?

We assembled a judging panel consisting of the CEO, CTO (that’s me), Senior Project Manager, and an invited customer.  This judging panel had the difficult task of choosing the ‘most innovative’ and ‘most promising’ project idea.

Additionally, everyone in the company was given tokens to vote on the ‘most popular’ project idea.  The quality and diversity of demonstrable project ideas was incredible and exceeded most expectations.

Kevin Burfitt, our Senior Project Manager coordinated the hack days and when asked about his reflection on the hack days he had this to say:

"For two days we remove all the normal reporting structures, meetings and red-tape and just let people concentrate on their own innovative ideas.  Seeing the enthusiasm of so many people working together and bringing their hacks to life is inspiring."

Turning hacks into real features: Community Feed and Geovisualization

The NVivo 10 Service Pack 2 released in February 2013 included 2 hack day project ideas from the first hack day.  The first was the Community Feed which facilitated the ability to provide live news, tips, and video tutorials to users of NVivo within NVivo.

Community Feed and Geovisualizations

The second was Geo-visualization which facilitated geospatial visualization of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter data captured using NCapture (a browser add-in) for analysis within NVivo.

Encouraging creativity and passion

We are proceeding with a half dozen hack day project ideas that will find their way into product releases and company process over the remainder of this year.

Hack days support building an innovative culture which allows experimentation, failure, and learning.  It enables participants to express their creativity and passion outside their day to day work and drives increased innovation within the organization.  The time constraint imposes the need for creative problem solving and early prioritization to ensure a demonstrable idea.

To finish, I quote Thomas Edison, one of world’s most prolific inventors in history:

“The real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded into twenty-four hours”

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