As tech startups grow and become profitable they get more and more professional, efficient, effective, maybe even excellent at what they do and how they do it. They introduce best-practice ways of working (like some kind of Agile), company-wide planning, become data-driven, conduct architecture reviews, product demos, security audits or something else that helps them cope with the scale and the challenges scale brings. Each company develops its own culture, but ultimately the ones staying successful develop a very steady rhythm of doing things.
The rhythm has taken some time to mature and it can be difficult to maintain when people join or leave. But it is critical to a big company. Because of this criticality, it is easy to forget that rhythm is probably not the reason why the company has become so successful in the first place.
Most companies start out by just doing things together, somehow. Either they start selling something, start providing some service, start cobbling together a first solution to some problem. Only as they get feedback from their first customers they realize in how many ways their assumptions were wrong. So, they learn, get new ideas and they adapt. Until they either crash and burn or until they make it. And while the great majority of startups fail, still, the way to success leads over failure and the ability to learn from it. Starting out a company is not straightforward, but it is messy.
Many companies will remember the lessons leading to their success, but after many years most will have forgotten the dirty way that got them to those lessons in the first place. This messy way is critical to learning to be successful. The goal of the messy way is to find a repeatable way to success, to find the rhythm. Not the messy way, but the rhythm becomes culture. And culture is the way things are done in a company.
But what if a company wants or needs new kinds of success? For this, the rhythm has to be broken. The company has to create new ways again, spaces for ideas, spaces for messiness. There are many ways to do this and others can do a way better job elaborating on the different models, so I will resist the urge. But I will mention one. And that is, to, once-in-a-while, step out of the rhythm of excellence and just hack something.
Immobilienscout24 has quite a long tradition of Hack Days. The very first was probably conducted in 2008, went for one day and was called the Scout-IT Day. On that day you could work on whatever you wanted. We always tried to convince product people and designers to join, and some did, sometimes more, sometimes less. But it was still a Tech show. In result, some hacks were product-focused, trying to improve an existing feature with a new technology or prototyping something new. Other projects were pure tech topics. Some people simply updated outdated infrastructure because they found it important, others learned a new programming language. I think I wanted to try GWT to replace some multi-page flow with a single page app. The Scout-IT Day evolved until it eventually became three days each quarter, consequently called the Scout-IT Triple. Three days not working on your product backlog, but hacking on whatever you wanted.
In 2016 we decided to change the name to what it really should be: Hack Days. And we introduced a theme. Why themes? First, themes are a chance to respond to a specific trend, like AR, AI or Voice. Second, they provide a sense of shared mission to everyone participating, even if loosely. And third, it is actually good for creative endeavours to provide some constraints, to help the brain get out of its comfort zone and maybe sparkle really new ideas. Fourth, because Hack Days are not mandatory but we want everyone to attend, we do not enforce the theme.
This time, the theme we picked is “Social.”
Again, it is so easy to get caught up in the steady rhythm of a company, to obsess about features for people who want to sell or buy a house, about conversion increase, customer satisfaction or even about quarterly earnings. But this all is very meaningless outside of business, in real life. Outside, apart from people like you and me, there are many struggling to get along in our society in some ways: Refugees trying to find home or work, foreigners searching ways through German bureaucracy, most people doing the taxes, kids struggling to read, homeless seeking shelter in the winter. Social may have many meanings but we mean it in the sense of giving back. Social also gives us the opportunity to try something new. We have never worked with external people in Hack Days. But because we want to hack on Social we asked three NGOs working in social fields if they have any problems worth attacking in our Hack Days.
Writing these words I realize that there is an irony to our Hack Days: The process has become so mature and did not change a lot in the last eight years. So there is a steady, humming rhythm to how people here hack on things. A few weeks before the start, Hack Days and its theme are announced and a list is created where people can add a project they want to work on, others can add their own names to existing projects. Then, on the first day, there is a kickoff and the ideas on the list are pitched by the people. What do you work on? With whom? What help do you need? Where do people find you?
Today, just before Hack Days, the list is already super-diverse. Currently it features 16 project ideas ranging from the three NGOs over an app for refugees, supporting social organizations with our products, help for vision-impaired people and more, to some things completely unrelated to the theme.
After the pitches people will work on the things they wrote on the list for three days until, on the third day, they have to start thinking about their demos. Demos are a critical part to any product development culture and that is no different for Hack Days. So on the third day 3 p.m. people gather around a stage, the list is pulled out and line-by-line we call the groups to demo what they have built.
I’m already super-curious what people will hack on this time. Questions or feedback? Get in touch with me on Twitter.