10 Ways to make Hackdays Work

June 9, 2011

Ed. This post has been syndicated from Adam Nash's (VP, Product Management) personal blog where he talks about what he learned while making Hackdays work at LinkedIn.

Since Adam kicked off LinkedIn's hackday series, we've had 200+ contributions, 50+ winners, and over 15 of them that have made it onto the LinkedIn site. Here's a quick video overview, followed by Adam's 10 Tips...

Most of the engineers who work at LinkedIn have also worked at other great technology companies, and in the past year there has been an incredible swell of feedback from new and old employees alike that LinkedIn Hackdays have become something truly special.  What began as a spontaneous contest over the 2007 holiday break has now become a true technical bedrock at the company.

We’ve learned a lot in the past four years about how to make Hackdays successful, but at a high level, there are ten key ingredients that make LinkedIn Hackdays work.

  1. For Engineers, By Engineers.  This may be obvious, but Hackdays are highly optimized events around engineering culture. There may be a lot of opinions about what would be considered “fun” or “useful”, but for Hackdays, in the end, is designed for engineers. This effects everything from the timing, the prizes, the venue and the communication around it.

  2. Spirit of Exploration. Hackdays have an opinionated culture, and one of those opinions is that with software it is infinitely better to learn by actually doing, rather than reading or talking. It’s part of why people go into engineering in the first place. This is one of the reasons that we celebrate hacks that are purely to learn a new language, environment, algorithm, or architecture. This is not just a fun thing to do – it’s an incredibly effective way to expose talented engineers to new technology, and more importantly, set a tone that we should always be learning.

  3. Independence. Hackdays are a day of true self-determination. At LinkedIn, we believe that small, cross-functional teams build the best software. Teams do a great job looking at product metrics, customer requests, and innovative ideas from the team, and then prioritizing what to work on. Hackdays are a day to break free, and work on whatever you personally find interesting. If you have a great idea, this is the day to help make it a reality.

  4. Company-wide Event. Hackdays may be optimized for engineers, but everyone is invited and included. Some of the best Hackday projects come from an engineer, web developer and product manager working together. We’ve had entries from almost every function, and from multiple offices. Most importantly, hackday projects are shared with the entire company on the intranet, and Hackday Judging is an event that everyone is encouraged to attend. Winners are announced to the whole company. It’s incredibly important to cement hackdays as a part of company culture, rather than something that lives within the engineering function.

  5. Executive Attention. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until 2010 that we stumbled upon an obvious truth. Executive attention matters. Actions speak louder than words, and when executives make a point to attend, reference, and discuss hackday projects, it makes a huge difference to the entire organization.  At every LinkedIn Hackday Judging event, you’ll now find at least three of LinkedIn’s senior executives on the panel.

  6. It’s a Contest, but Loosely Enforced. LinkedIn Hackdays are thrown on Fridays, with the submission date for projects due at 9am on the following Monday. Teams are limited to five people, and projects have to be presented live for Hackday Judging to be considered for prizes. Having rules for hackdays is a delicate balance – if you are too weak on enforcement, people lose faith in “the system”, and you’ll get discontent from the people who follow them. However, too tight on the rules, and you break the independent spirit of the event.

  7. Hackday Judging, or Hackday Idol? Hackday Judging has morphed over the years into an “American Idol” like event.  The hackdays themselves are relatively independent and quiet. It’s the judging that is the main event. Teams are given two minutes to demo their hacks. The panel of celebrity judges is given a minute to asks questions, and then it’s on to the next project. We serve lots of food & drink, and try to make it a fun event. (Typically, I fill the role of Ryan Seacrest.  Yes, I know that my mom would be proud.) There is a lot of laughing, a lot of cheering, and we try to make a good time for everyone.  Most people who attend leave the event incredibly inspired by what their co-workers come up with. More importantly, once people attend, they tend to come back again (or better yet, enter their own projects.) We now have everyone in the company help judge by tweeting out their favorite projects with the project name and a #inday hashtag.

  8. Lots of Prizes. We give prizes to every team that present a project at Hackday, while winning teams get larger dollar amounts. We have 5-6 regular categories, so there are always multiple winners. Some times, we give additional prizes for stand out projects, but that’s up to the judges. The reason for gift cards is logistics – giving out iPhones, iPods, Flip cameras, etc sounds like a great idea, but too often you get winners who already have one, or who don’t want one.  (The Apple bias bugs some people, but the truth is we’ve experimented with a wide variety of prizes, and people on average seem to really prefer these.  We did notice that our college interns preferred Amazon gift certificates, however…)

  9. Path to Production.  Some hackday projects are so impressive, there is a natural desire to shout “SHIP IT!” In reality, however, hackday projects can vary significantly in their technical and product appropriateness for a large scale production environment. At LinkedIn, we’ve now found multiple ways for people to share their hacks.  Some projects live on hosted on internal machines, and are used by employees. Some of our best internal tools have come from previous hackdays.  Other projects are built over the LinkedIn Platform, and can be launched to end users on LinkedIn Labs. Some projects are actually extensions of our production codebase, and actually become live site features.  (Example: The 2010 Year In Review email began as a Hackday Winner, as did the inline YouTube expansion in the LinkedIn feed.)

  10. Learn & Iterate. We are big believers in continuous improvement, and I don’t think there has been a single hackday where we didn’t add some improvements. We constantly try out new things, and stick with the ones that work, and shed the ones that don’t. The pace of innovation has dramatically quickened as hackdays became more frequent, and as the company has grown larger.

Check out Hackday Winners at LinkedIn Labs

I hope this provided an insider view on how we do Hackdays here at LinkedIn. Would love to hear your thoughts, feedback and examples from your company. Feel free to leave a comment or mention us @linkedin.