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How to run an internal hackday

Each month SilverStripe runs an internal hackday.

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Each month SilverStripe runs an internal hackday. We’ve been doing this for a while now; in the past our hackdays had an open source focus and SilverStripers were encouraged to improve modules, fix bugs and review pull requests. We recently made some changes to broaden the scope of hackdays to not only help with our open source efforts; but to also learn something or help others learn; or to “scratch an itch” (improve internal tools and processes etc). We also encourage all SilverStripers to take part in our hackdays — not just technical folks.

This change was important for SilverStripe. We’ve always had a culture of tinkering. But as we grow we need a way to bring the whole company together. A company that creates/learns/teaches/fixes things together in a fun environment, stays happily together.

Running a hackday is not without its challenges. We currently have 65 SilverStripers in our Wellington and Auckland offices. As Development Manager, I was asked to facilitate them and ensure all SilverStripers were included and get something valuable from the day. I couldn’t find many examples of “how to run an internal hackday”. So I thought I would write one about our experiences in case it is helpful to you.

Keep it low-fi

The most important thing to note is that internal hackdays don’t need to be polished productions with all the bells and whistles of a major event. In fact, when you are running regular hackdays, you can’t expend that amount of effort or budget — it’s just not sustainable. What you can do is put some simple systems in place and then bring a lot of heart to the day.

Clear the decks

SilverStripe hackdays usually happen on the first Friday of every month. It’s useful to keep to a regular cadence so our scrum teams can build that into their sprints. Attendance at hackdays is highly encouraged and mandated by the management team. From time to time, a SilverStriper won’t be able to participate in hackday because something’s gone down with a project or client. But we try really hard to avoid that.

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While it can be hard to pull yourself away from work, the fun and energy of hackday is always worth it. (From left to right: Garion, Simon and Nicole with Mike in the back row.)

Provide focus

To give our hackday some focus, we have two awards up for grabs for “Best non-technical hack” and “Best technical hack”. Winners receive one of the “Cones of Awesome” which is filled with candy, and more importantly, the glowing admiration of fellow SilverStripers. The Cones have subsequently gotten weirder as winners are encouraged to “put their stamp” on them. Winners then judge at the next hackday.

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The "Cones of Awesome" are awarded to the best technical and non-technical hackday project each month. As part of the glory of winning you get to add your own personal touch to the cones and judge the following hackday.

Champion (or wrangle)

It’s useful to have someone designated on the ground to keep an eye on things. Is everyone okay and has the support they need to work on something? Is lunch ordered and on time? Are the judges good to go?  It’s pretty low key and involves walking around the office saying things like “Hackday is starting at 9:30am!”, “Make your own sandwiches on level 6.” and “What are you going to demo?”. And then writing similar messages on Slack. Some times I wish I had a PA system so I could broadcast to all offices and floors at once. Hmmm...Next hackday maybe...

Keep to schedule

Create a schedule and share it with everyone so they know what to expect. Ours looks like this:

  • 9.30am - 10.00am: Hackday kicks off in the Wellington and Auckland boardrooms via teleconferencing. Each person tells everyone what they are planning on doing and we self-organise. Many people opt to work in pairs or groups because you can often achieve a lot in a team in one day and it’s more fun that way.

  • 12.30pm: Lunchtime. It can be challenging feeding an entire company across two offices. We’ve had successes with ordering pizzas, putting on a sausage sizzle and making your own sandwiches. Lunch matters to everyone so put some love into it.

  • 4.30pm - 5.30pm: Beers, demos and judging are an important part of hackday. Once again Wellington and Auckland SilverStripers get together via teleconferencing. To keep things moving along, presentations are time-boxed to five minutes. Winners are announced at the end of the day amidst loud hoorays.

If you are thinking “that’s not a lot of time”, you can achieve a lot in eight hours. Most hackday projects are standalone ones. But we also have a few that are ongoing across hackdays and that’s okay too.

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The winning technical team from May's hackday presenting their project — a CSS style guide for the Simple SilverStripe theme. (From left to right: Ian, Mike, Denise, Ben and Wes).

Last hackday

We held our last hackday on Friday 1 May and it really felt like the best one yet — not only for quality and creativity, but also camaraderie. The judges, Eva and Mateusz, were particularly impressed with:

  • Hamish and Nicole who ran a debating club in response to developers’ request to have some public speaking training. They taught seven SilverStripers how to debate and we got some lunchtime entertainment to boot. They won a Cone of Awesome for “Best non-technical hack”.

  • Denise, Ian, Michael and Wesley who built on Ben’s style guide module and won a Cone of Awesome for “Best technical hack”. They consulted widely across SilverStripe and then started to put something really useful together for our open source community. We can’t wait to see their completed module.

  • Elliot who mentored Roman, our 12 year old guest. Roman got in touch and asked if he could spend the day at SilverStripe so we invited him to hackday. Together they had a huge amount of fun getting an ODROID to drive a wall dashboard. It’s awesome to be working with the next generation of eager developers. Roman even made us a website to say thanks.

  • Andrew, Michael Strong and other members of the Mighty Ops team who integrated Spotify with Slack so they can play music on Level 5 and prank unsuspecting SilverStripers through that.

  • Ingo, Simon and Tony who built a deck chair out of old pallets for our rooftop garden. With their bare hands. And saws.

And just between us, a bunch of us stayed in the kitchen dancing until midnight.

Check out the Instagram photos from our hackday.

Hackdays have become a really important part of SilverStripe. Our success with them has me convinced that all companies can benefit from having them to foster creativity, innovation and friendship. Feel free to get in contact with me if you have any questions about running an internal hackday. I’d love to help if I can.

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About the author
Clarion Coughlan

Clarion is responsible for the career development of SilverStripe's talented team of developers - overseeing things like recruitment, performance management and professional development. She also coordinates the company's internship and mentoring programmes, and describes her role as "supporting and growing the developers at SilverStripe".

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