What I'm Reading
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Wednesday, October 3. 2012
What is Hack Day?
Hack Day is a competition where teams come together with an idea and try to turn it into a working piece of software in 24 hours. Hack Day is a forum to showcase the most innovative and entrepreneurial talent. The idea could be the next great mobile app, a feature you've always wanted to see, a tool that will make programmers more efficient, etc. The whole thing starts 2 weeks ahead of Hack Day with Hack Bazaar, where people with ideas try to recruit talent for their project. Talent could include scientists, back-end engineers, user experience designers, mobile developers, etc. On Hack Day, these teams spend 24 hours (with little sleep) turning that idea into a working prototype. At the end of 24 hours, teams will give a 90 second pitch and demonstrate their idea to a panel of distinguished judges. To the winners, glory and street cred amongst the hacker community, and a chance to get their idea funded.
Forming The Team
The idea I actually had for this Hack Day was from my innovation backlog. I already had the idea ready to go back in Q1, but I just didn't have enough mental bandwidth to properly lead 3 teams at Hack Day. In either case, right after I won Q2 Hack Day, I already picked out my team for Q3 Hack Day. I picked people who wanted to compete in Q2 Hack Day but couldn't compete because they were busy. I wanted to give as many people a taste of the Hack Day experience as much as possible. I had also made a bet with my boss that I could get everyone under his team a Hack Day win before the year was out, that is one of my focal goals for the year. Ambitious no?
I was also adamant in choosing people who had never competed in a Hack Day before. Why?
During Hack Bazaar, I pulled in my team to brainstorm what we were going to work on. My right-hand man, Huge, the coding ninja sat down in the room and he said he might not be able to do Hack Day. I inquired why, and he gave some lame excuse. I called him out on it and asked why he really didn't want to do Hack Day. He said we had already won three Hack Days, so there's a lot of pressure for us to win, and shouldn't we quit while we're ahead. My diplomatic answer was, let me show you what I am planning to do, and then you can decide whether you want to compete in Hack Day or not. My non-diplomatic answer was, "Huge, don't worry about losing, we're going to win, this is the big one." We had five really solid ideas on the board. but we quickly rallied around the hack from my innovation backlog.
I asked the million dollar question, who will join me in Hack Day to build out this idea? Huge was in. Phew. I had one person decline my call-to-arms because they said they couldn't offer anything of value to the hack. While I appreciate the honesty of that, when opportunity is knocking on the door, you seize the moment. I spent the next 24 hours thinking of a feature that could leverage this person's expertise. I actually came up with a brilliant feature that actually became a core piece of the demo. After I presented this new feature, that person joined the team.
The team consisted of six people total, and it was the biggest idea and the biggest team I had ever attempted at a Hack Day. Just to add even more difficulty to the task at hand, I would be out of office for a week go volunteer at Royal Family Kids Camp. That left no time to prepare or coordinate, and I would be coming into competition pretty sleep deprived and tired. This was going to test my physical and mental stamina.
The Day Of Competition
I woke up early that morning because I couldn't sleep, my mind was racing about Hack Day. Had I prepared enough? Was my idea good enough? Will people like what I came up with? It was still too early to go into work, so I spent the early morning pacing around my apartment praying and meditating on the task at hand.
I drove into work, gathered the team and headed to building C where Hack Day was being held. I entered the room, and saw some familiar faces of friends and competitors from former Hack Days. We picked a workspace, and proceeded in setting up our command center. In about 15 minutes, our table was littered with laptops, tablets, books, and smartphones. The clock started, and we had 24 hours to build out our idea. As the day progressed, some people recognized who I was and came up wanting some advice about Hack Days, and how to pitch ideas. I was more than happy to oblige. I had a poor soul come up to me wanting to recruit me for their project, I was tempted to ask them, "do you know who I am?", but instead I politely rejected their offer.
By 8pm, the mood at Hack Day started to change. You could see some teams starting to really hit their stride in the competition. You could see some teams still debating what they build for Hack Day because they hadn't planned enough. Some teams start realizing, oh no, we only have 16 hours left, and were no where close to finishing.
I decided to look at the roster of competitors, and noticed that one of my work rivals had joined Hack Day with a big team. We're rivals because after my Q1 Hack Day project got funded, my rival lost control of his project because my product was superior. I look up, and then I see my rival enter the room with his team. The guy walks in wearing business casual attire which basically violates the core principles of hackerdom. Every Hack Day, I tell all my team members to make sure that they wear a geeky t-shirt to Hack Day; if they wore a polo or a collared shirt I would send them home for a change of clothes. Anyways, this Hack Day just got a lot more interesting. I told my team, if that guy beats me at Hack Day, I'm retiring from competition because I am no longer a worthy adversary. Fast forward to 11pm, and I see my rival arguing with his team while sipping on a cup of wine. Who drinks wine at a Hack Day competition!?
Crossing The Finish Line
By midnight, half my team had retired for the evening. The other half would stay at Yahoo! all night to try to get all the coding done. We worked furiously over the night. At around 4am, I decided to get 30 minutes of sleep inside a phone booth. I've never gotten so little sleep at a Hack Day before, but there was a ton of work to do.
Immediately after the demos were submitted, we're all given a number, and a rough time window of when we'll be presenting to judges for a preliminary round. This is like the pre-judging that happens on American Idol, only the top 30 make it into the next round. While everyone around me were nervously preparing their speeches, putting the final polish on their presentations, I was watching inspirational videos on my laptop. I'm getting into the zone, I'm cool and I'm calm. Our number was finally called, and we walked into a room and the judge was none other than the Chief Architect of Yahoo! Wow! I walked them through my original rationale and inspiration for the hack, and then showed them the demo. I saw smiles on the judges face as soon as they saw the demo, so that was a good sign. They were also fascinated by some of the algorithms that we had employed. The business case I had laid out seemed very reasonable as well. As we walked out of that room, I told my team, no matter what happened today in judging, I'm very happy with what we built, and what we presented, we couldn't have done it any better, and that was winning in my books.
One of my team members noticed that my rival was spamming people with emails asking them to vote for his project (top voted projects advance to the next round as well), my team members asked if we should rally support as well. I told them, I wanted our product to speak for itself, if it was truly great, it won't need marketing. When voting closed, my product had 17 votes, my rival had 87 votes. I was absolutely unphased.
Shortly after lunch, I was sitting in a lobby. My rival was sitting across from my team. An email came out with a list of finalists that were advancing to the final round of Hack Day. My team had made it to the finals, my team was celebrating. My response was much more subdued just because I assumed we would advance. I also saw that my rival's team did not make the shortlist. The opposing team's engineers seemed genuinely disappointed, and one of them muttered, "never follow a product manager in a Hack Day." I saw my rival go argue with one of the judges, and 30 minutes later, an additional email came out saying that my rival's team was "accidentally" left out of the finalist list. Hmmm. Oh well, bring it on. Out of 64 teams, 30 teams would be competing in the finals.
We enter the classroom where the Hack Day finals are being hosted, and it was packed full of people. The audience was exposed to a wide variety of hacks, some funny, some inspirational, some really odd ones, and some crashes and burns. I was glad to see that many of my peers from Search had also participated by either competing or was part of the audience; my division must have fielded at least 5 teams. We got to the middle of the program, and my rival took to the stage. He started his pitch with a use case that didn't seem like a real problem users were facing, and then he gave a demo of what his team had built. Someone from Search whispers to me, "Hey, isn't that just a derivative of what you had built and got funding for in Q1 Hack Day?" I responded, "uhhh... yeah it is, oh well, good luck with that one." I was scratching my head. Why did my rival need such a big team to build that? My original Q1 Hack Day project required only 1.25 engineers. Oh well, I was happy because I knew there was no way my rival was going to win.
My team's number finally comes up, and I took to the stage. Compared to other Hack Days, I was definitely far more confident because giving pitches were now second nature to me. I noticed that as I started talking, I was just so focused on giving the demo and hitting all my talking points and jokes; everything around me just faded away. It might be because I was just so tired from lack of sleep, but I wasn't able to actually detect how the audience was responding to my pitch. In the middle of the demo, the projector actually cut out, and the audience wasn't able to see my screen anymore. Thankfully it happened at such an ironic time in my pitch that the audience just laughed. I recovered pretty quickly, and still had 30 seconds left on the clock to show them the killer piece of the demo. I end with the punchline, and I leave the stage with applause.
As I walked off stage, I asked my team member if the audience laughed when I told them my key joke, and he said yes. I was relieved because I had done my pitch like a comedy routine, and it all hinged on jokes and making people feel entertained. Are you not entertained? Is that not why you're here? In either case, I felt bad for the team who happened to go after my pitch because they were competing in the same idea space as I was. They had quite an act to follow.
The pitches finished, and the judges left the room to deliberate. They returned with the co-founder of the company, David Filo, and had a list in hand of the winners. I was competing in the mobile category, and when they announced the winner for mobile, my heart sank when it wasn't my team. I thought, uh oh, I promised my team we would win, this was not good. After a couple categories had passed, they announced yet another mobile category winner. I was sitting on the edge of my seat, and then they called out another team's name. The odds were narrowing very quickly. The only two awards left were "Hacker's Choice Award" (as voted by the people), and "Overall Best Hack." Filo then said, "and the winner of the Hacker's Choice Award is.... wait.... is this right? Really? (Goes and whispers to the judges). Wow.... uhhh okay." He then called out our team. I reacted by raising a solid fist in the air signalling victory, at long last, victory. When we walked up to pickup our award, David Filo asked in disbelief, "how many Hack Day wins has this been now?" I responded, "This would be number four."
I felt relieved. I felt vindicated. The strategy worked. I had accomplished my goal of ensuring every team member under my boss had won a Hack Day award. That evening, I got an outpouring of thank you emails. One of my team member's wives even sent me a message thanking me for letting her husband onto my team.
Below is a slideshow of photos from Hack Day
Now comes the hard part, raising another round of funding...
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"So the whole war is because we can't talk to each other."
--Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game
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