What Could You Hack in Five Days?

January 27, 2016

At the end of last year, LinkedIn’s engineering team in New York City took a week away from our normal work rhythms, and focused our energy into one blissful week of building cool new things. It was our own Hack Week, for lack of a better term, because naming things is one of the great computer science problems.

  • HackWeekNYC

Why do Hack Week?

At LinkedIn, we already take one day a month for hacking, building new things, and improving ourselves. It’s called InDay. Everyone’s encouraged to spend their InDay on something beyond the everyday, and some engineers choose to hack on things on InDay. To reward and encourage hacking, we host periodic Hackday judging sessions. At these sessions, engineers present their hacks to LinkedIn executives and other important folks, who judge the hacks and hand out prizes. As great as that is, one day a month just wasn’t enough for me. Lots of great ideas and great projects need more than a day to implement or to even make meaningful progress on, and engineers are always thinking of new problems to solve.

Our New York Engineering team (which works on some of the most interesting problems at the company, like secure outbound Internet access, crawling the web for things our members have done, and supporting our editorial team with insights and tools to do their job) has been growing rapidly, and I thought that Hack Week was an opportunity to help unite all of the new team members behind a fun project. Nothing is more exciting to an engineer than being given the freedom to play with a new technology or product to help stretch your skills. When I surveyed the office to check if there were people willing to work to make Hack Week happen, the response was overwhelming.

Changing the resounding “yes, let’s do it!” into action turned out to be pretty easy; I shared the concept with the other engineering leaders in NYC and I got buy-in to invest the resources. We agreed on a week, took some leftover budget (you’ve gotta provide food and prizes), and I had my mandate. I did some research in to how other places had done similar events and came up with a plan for how to run a Hack Week that would be feasible at a company our size in a remote development office.

What was Hack Week?

We decided to run our Hack Week in a semi-structured format. We started out with a meeting where the whole team presented ideas, brainstormed, and talked about what they’d like to do with their week. We also had a BlueJeans session open so that traveling employees could participate too. After the brainstorming meeting, the leadership team went through and assessed all the ideas for feasibility and scope. We had to make sure that the projects could be done in a week, but would also take most of a week to do.

Next, I sent the list of ideas to the team and solicited people to adopt a project as the leader. Leaders would be responsible for coordinating everything necessary to do the hack. A few weeks before we got started, each leader gave a 2-minute presentation of the absolute highlights of their hack in front of the whole team to tempt engineers to work on their projects.

In the two weeks before Hack Week began, giving the teams time to plan and architect their hack (but no coding allowed!) Once Hack Week started, we stepped back to let people work together. There was no formal structure or progress check during the week – we just let people work.

Finally, each team presented their hack for judging in front of our panel of celebrity judges from across the teams in NYC: Brandon Duncan, our NYC Engineering site director, John Abell, one of our Senior Editors, and Paul Kaczorowski, our IT support team’s automation wizard. These presentations were short – about five minutes long – and highlighted what the hack does. Both our celebrity panel and the whole audience voted on a winner.

What Were the Outcomes?

  • HackWeekNYC

From left to right: Automated Meeting Scheduler team members: Michael Marion, Luis Molina, David Astle; AirDnD team members: Lingbing Wang, Stephanie Hwa (a few team members helped but were remote on presentation day)

Nearly every engineer in the office participated in at least one project. Around 15 percent of the engineers volunteered as project leaders. After Hack Week was over, we conducted a survey of the engineering team and reported a Net Promoter Score of 80 for Hack Week participation. This means that 80% of the people who participated would enthusiastically recommend participating in Hack Week to a peer, which is an awesome metric for our success. Our engineers came up with ton of awesome hacks, but for the sake of brevity, the two that won prizes were:

The Judge’s Pick: AirDnD

AirDnD, as you might guess from the name, is similar to AirBnB, helping travelling LinkedIn employees find a comfortable desk while they’re in a different office, and to offer their own desk home to others. With LinkedIn’s constant growth, empty desks are like easter eggs, so the AirDnD team created a platform to find an unoccupied desk in an office you’re visiting. You not only get to use a desk with amenities like a monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc. but you get to feel like a guest in the office instead of  a squatter. Gone are the days of sitting in a drop-by conference room all day, avoiding the disapproving glares of your co-workers who may have tripped over your bag earlier.

The Audience Pick: Automatic meeting scheduling tool

Scheduling meetings with people in other offices is a huge pain. You need to remember what office all the people you need are in, what timezone that is, what their working hours are, etc. etc. etc. This team wrote a tool that abstracts all that knowledge away, and all you have to know is who you want to invite. The tool takes your list of people and a time window in which you want to meet, and automatically figures out a time that is free on everyone’s calendar, within everyone’s working hours, and where a meeting room is available in everyone’s building. It then automatically schedules all the rooms around the world needed for the meeting and books it.

Lessons learned?

  • Pick the right time

    • We conducted Hack Week at the very end of the 4th quarter. This wasn't the most ideal week because, despite our best plans, there were some work objectives that needed to be done before our change moratorium kicked in, which took some time away from hacking. When we do it again, we’ll choose a less critical time.

  • Some structure helps provide leadership opportunities

    • Making people declare themselves as leaders for the project helped get people to come forward and see what it’s like to run a team. This helped build our leadership bench and also gave people the chance to explore new things.

  • Make the leaders responsible for building a project plan in advance

    • We did not require the team leads to plan how they would execute the project. The engineers turned out to be very interested in seeing how the leaders thought the hack could be executed and how the time was managed, and not every leader was ready for the scrutiny. When we do this again, we’ll ask leaders to develop their plans in advance.

  • Block out all other responsibilities

    • If you’re going to give people the time to work on truly novel projects, make sure they can actually hack the whole time. We ended up with several interviews scheduled during Hack Week, and those small disruptions were enough to lose the creative flow that made the week so fun. When planning a Hack Week, make sure you can actually give people an uninterrupted week, or as close to that as possible.

Hack Week exemplifies our culture of experimentation and encouraging our engineers to act like owners. I was so happy at the level of support we received from all levels of management, including having it added to everyone in NYC’s quarterly goals list. Part of my job is to make sure that LinkedIn’s engineering-first culture stays strong in our remote R&D centers, and I’m happy to report that Hack Week in NYC was a great step towards reinforcing our priorities of experimentation and independence.

If you’re interested in joining us for our next Hack Week, we’ve got roles to fill in New York! Click here for details.