Article

Hack Days

Clair Hillier takes a look at the benefits of hack days and shows how they can help you solve problems, foster better and more creative working partnerships and even help you see failure as a success.

Have you got challenges like this?

When your current technology choice isn’t the right choice for an up and coming project, where do you find the time to explore what is out there?

How do you know that the technology that you are using doesn’t have a rival that would better suit your needs?

Are you finding it difficult to justify the time to investigate a new tool, to look at the pros and cons of a new technology or are you struggling to try something out in a safe way?

If your team are assigned time to look into something on a project and it’s not right, is that a major deal because you’re going to struggle to find more time to invest in investigating an alternative?

When you need your team to think outside of their comfort zone how do they deal with it? Can they be creative? Are they used to exploring problems? Do they accept the way things are or have they developed a mind-set of questioning and looking for solutions when things are less than optimal?

Does your team ever try bold things? Succeeding in brand new things means that they are stepping into the unknown; taking some risks. Trying new things means that they might fail; success can’t be guaranteed, but the potential benefits could be significant.

Every person wants to do a good job, I have no doubt that your team are the same; so it’s likely that they work hard. Do they deserve a little breathing space away from business as usual?

Introducing hack days

If you’ve got challenges like these then we think that you could benefit from hack days. We believe that hack days are a great way to nurture your team and to improve their performance.

Here at Waterstons we run a company-wide hack day once a quarter. We don’t expect the work that’s done to be something that will be used in the real world and we relax our high production standards. But that’s actually not what’s really important about our hack days. To us, they are a playground for exploring and learning. Our hack days give people and teams the breathing space to get stuck into something new or exciting, to go on a technological adventure.

A lot of companies see hack days as either a slightly sneaky way to squeeze a bit of extra work out of the team or just as a way for the team to have a day skiving. Surely, if you throw a load of nerds in a room and fuel them up with a bit of pizza then you can easily thrash a couple of hundred more lines of code out of them? And if not then why would your team need a day to have down time, they’ve got plenty to be doing without wanting a whole day to play about?

Maybe it’s nothing to do with any of that though. Here at Waterstons we believe in giving our staff time to experiment and we’ve been reaping the benefits for years. As far as we’re concerned it’s win-win for all involved.

The benefits

We have noticed so many benefits of running hack days. We’ve found that our people are more creative, curious and conscious of alternative solutions.

We’ve seen more interest in new advancements and our staff are committing technologies and methodologies that catch their eye to memory for the next hacking opportunity. They do this knowing that they will get a good chance to have a go without fear of failure.

When people know that they will have time to tackle complicated problems then they start to question things around them. They are more likely to spot opportunities. We’ve seen staff explore solutions to really sticky client problems on a hack day, then put a suggestion forward to resolve the problem long-term with the confidence that they are going to succeed.

A great team needs to learn to fail; failing means that you tried something new and weren’t afraid of going for it. As long as they felt that they learned something along the way then it isn’t a failure. Stop any negativity on failure immediately; it stops people trying newer, bigger, better things. Hack days give us a way to learn from failure at low risk.

Lots of software development jobs are fairly solitary (the music in your headphones doesn’t count); if this is the case, group hacks should be encouraged. Let the team work together, learn together and grow together. Junior team members will learn in a fun, exciting environment.

Getting started with hacking

Hack days aren’t massive things to organise, but some words of advice never go astray:

Time

Get the time approved. If you’re in sole charge of your time and/or your team's time then you’re set. Depending on the time that your team can afford, this could be time every month or just once a year, although we think that even if you set out to just do it once a year you’ll soon see benefits that mean you want to do it more often.

When I say get it approved I mean that you need to ensure that there’s an understanding of what you’re doing across the board. The whole company needs to see this as an activity that is going to generate benefits.

Timing

Try to arrange it so that the whole team hack on the same day. It’s usually a jovial day so you don’t want half the team trying to get on with business as usual while the others are likely to make more noise than usual.

Let the rest of the business know when hack day is happening so that they can help to control any external requests coming to the team on the day.

Plan ahead

You don’t want to get to your hack day and find the team haven’t considered what they will do. It’s worth having the team chat about their ideas prior to the day. Try to be as accommodating as you can be with what the people do - benefit comes from all hacks so don’t try and curb the choices.

Output

You will want to promote the benefits of the hack day and to share the knowledge that was gathered on the day so consider what the output of the day will be. As long as you have the right culture and the whole business is bought-in to the benefits of the day then there is no reason why this part can’t be company-wide.

Enjoy it

Spend time with the team on the day, be engaged in what they are doing, encourage them and ensure that learning is the focus of the day. Make it fun. Pizza never goes down badly either.

Hack days Waterstons style

Our hack days have evolved over time as we’ve learned what people find useful.

We have a hack day ideas list that we host on our intranet. People can pop ideas on without a technology associated, a technology worth looking into to or ideas that they think that other people might enjoy.

We hack on Fridays and on the following Monday we have a lunchtime presentation to the whole company for anyone who wants to show what they have done – whether it’s business related or not. Lunch is provided and everyone comes over to see what weird and wonderful things were created.

We’ve seen some great hacks and learned a great deal. The team have gone on to implement ideas into real world projects, introduced technologies to the department and given us some great laughs.

Some of our funniest hack days and presentations have resulted from hacks that haven’t worked. From the hovercraft that was created with a mobile app navigation system with custom-built motherboard that literally didn’t lift off the ground (minor flaw) to the hack to build a super computer built on a Raspberry Pi that hit so many reductions in scope across the day that it turned into a mirror (without a mirror). It may sound bizarre, but with every failure that happens the team learn that it’s OK. They come into the presentation, laugh with the rest of the room and make sure that they milk every drop of comedic value out of their presentation. Crucially, every failure teaches us and them something too - and it’s always more than just how not to do things.

Waterstons can truly endorse the introduction of hack days to any organisation; the benefits we see do not compare to the time that is spent on the day. With each passing hack day people go bigger, they go bolder, they work in larger teams and they grow as people, with better confidence and knowledge.

I can’t think of anything else I’d want out of a day.

Getting the most out of your data in Manufacturing

04 April 2019 , The Studio, Glasgow

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