ACL’s HackFest: A New Take on Tradition

Hackathons or Hack Days are nothing new. Tech companies have been doing them for a while now, ACL included. After a few attempts at Hack Days at ACL, we felt the need to reboot and increase participation and excitement around it. One of our core values at ACL is “Disruptive Innovation” and we live it every day here, so why not apply that thinking to our Hack Day efforts?

Our newly rebooted “HackFest” is a 2 day event spread out over the course of a week that involves our entire R&D department. We conduct it twice a year, right after our major releases as a fun way to celebrate the success of a release.

Sometimes things get a little out of hand.

Doowhatchyalike

There are no constraints about what we work on or who works on it; it can be directly product or domain related or it can be a fun project that we want to spend some time on with help from our peers. Our projects have been wide ranging; from adding ElasticSearch to our platform, revolutionizing how and what we search for, to a Raspberry Pi-powered arcade machine, to experiments in Machine Learning.

A small team of hackers, trying to change the world

To be eligible for an award, we really only have one condition:

  • You must involve people from at least one other team. No silos.

Whatever you demo doesn’t have to be a polished final product, but you can share ideas through successful prototyping OR failed attempts. As Yoda told us, “failure is the greatest teacher”. If your project makes into ACL’s production environment where customers can use it? You get additional recognition and sweet, sweet nerd cred!

It doesn’t have to be code!

Anyone can submit an Idea for HackFest to our internal wiki where everyone has a chance to assess them. These Ideas don’t necessarily have to be pitched even half-baked ideas are welcome as they could inspire another hacker. The best, most feasible ideas are then turned into pitches. The Idea owner has 5–10 minutes to pitch their idea to the entire R&D group, describing possible tech stacks, necessary skills for a team, and any other enticements they can come up with. We all then go back to work and consider our favorite pitch.

Go Time

Once the teams are formed, we commence work on our projects. Some of us work at our desks, while others take over entire boardrooms or common areas throughout the office. We spend the entire day pulling together our ideas and building them out into functional prototypes. Many of us work into the night to “get it working” on day one.

Yes, lunch is included.

Day two is spent polishing the prototype and getting it presentation-ready. During the afternoon of day two, we present to a panel of judges as well as the larger group. The panel includes members from our senior leadership team and other leaders in the company. Three awards are handed out: Judges Choice, People’s Choice and Deployed to Production (awarded to an idea from the previous Hackfest that is now used by customers)

Presentation time.
The big prizes!

Takeaways

With our reboot of HackFest at ACL, we wanted to make sure we hit some key points:

  • Learn new things!
  • Collaborate with different people!
  • Have fun!

We find our more flexible and relaxed approach has increased participation and excitement around HackFest. It’s also generated some seriously cool stuff! We are looking forward to the next one…and the next one…

Work hard, have fun. And yes, dogs are allowed.