How we do our company hack day

Have you ever thought about introducing (remote) hack days or hackathons in your company/team, but did not know how to set this up? Then this might help. It’s by no means a go-to, we’ll just tell you how we do it.

Maria Gebhardt
Jan 14 · 7 min read

Company hack days are a common format to break the cycle of everyday work, encourage collaboration between people, who usually don’t work together and to learn something new. They trade the constraints of (in our case) client work for a very different constraint: making something useful or fun within a single day.

We’ve done company hack days in the past, but they were always co-located in the office, with pizza and drinks for everyone, creating this special atmosphere, which is both more relaxed and playful than usual, but also strangely tense because of the end-of-day deadline.

When the pandemic hit in March, we abandoned hack days for a few months because we felt they’d introduce more stress into an already stressful situation and also we weren’t sure how they would work remotely. After a few months of working from home and settling into the new rhythm, we approached the topic again.

What’s the setup?

  • we take a full day off of client work and only work on ideas and projects that our people choose themselves
  • groups and projects are agreed upon beforehand: all hack day ideas need to be pitched in our internal Basecamp and then there’s either no interest from the rest of the team or other people join, forming a team — at least six teams must have emerged a week prior, otherwise we cancel the whole thing
  • we call it a “hack day” for the lack of a better word, but we don’t mean it in a technical sense: all ideas that improve our company in any way are welcome … from coding up a technical prototype, to restructuring our dropbox folders or improving our accounting workflows
  • sometimes we also introduce an intentionally loose theme
  • at the beginning of the day all teams present their rough ideas and then we get to work
  • at the end of the day we have a brief review, approx. 10 mins for each team, of what they achieved

To get a better understanding of this, we probably should just lead you through one of our remote hack days held back in November.

Introducing a theme

The theme for this hack day was Team Spirit. During this ongoing pandemic it’s been hard to stay in touch as a team and a lot of social interaction that happens naturally and effortlessly in an office environment … well … just isn’t happening anymore.

So we wanted to use this hack day to explore being social in a pandemic. Any ideas were welcome, big or small.

Maybe the theme of the day was more of a hindrance than sparking creativity and we ended up pitching ideas in which you could not find anything related to team spirit or being social. But this doesn’t matter. If you want to do it for the day, then do it. I mean logically even working in a team at all can be regarded as a social thing.

What do those pitches look like?

Glad you asked!

A pitch needs to tell, why you want to tackle this specific topic, what the value is and probably the skills you need to approach/complete it. If someone likes your idea, you can refine it together and build a team.

As mentioned before, hack day is probably not the right word for what we are doing. We also have people like myself in the team, who know nothing about design or code. Their work can be theoretical or they listen and learn; furthermore we could also tackle topics/things, that are in no relation to what our actual work is. Our hack days are set out to be fun and have a learning effect. It’s your opportunity to try out something new. It’s not about being efficient and having a particularly great outcome, but about communicating with each other and probably learning what you do not know.

If you’re wondering how a pitch exactly looks like, here are some examples:

Usually we pitch these ideas at least a couple of days before the actual hack day is happening. So you have time to choose your topic and already get thinking about it.

Let’s go to work!

The day starts with a quick meeting with the whole diesdas-team and every group gives a short introduction about what they’re going to do for the day. Undecided people still have the chance to hop on board of a team.

The last time around we had 7 different topics. To get an idea,what those topics in general could look like here is a short list (as I said before, we had some struggles to fit into the theme 😉):

  1. migrating the frontend of our current diesdas.digital website to next.js framework
  2. a Pub Quiz, that could be played virtually on a Team Event
  3. Kirby SEO plugin
  4. Building a GDPR tool
  5. Extending Zoom
  6. Spatial Video Calls
  7. Building a Christmas Game

Some of the topics we actually already tackled in the hack day before and just got to refining them. On other hack days we had for example topics like making a 3D video game in Elm, updating our company wiki, rebuilding our office in Sims and creating two AI chatbots, that talked to each other on Slack.

After the introductory meeting it was time to do the actual work. We had about 7 hours (including lunch) until we met again for the final presentation at the end of the day. Everyone organized themselves, so how you spend and organize your time is up to you. The biggest difficulty on doing a hack day remote, is to find a way to communicate best. The approaches can be different: From using discord or all day video calls, to chats and asynchronous updates right up to just giving results or no communication at all. It might take a couple of hack days to find out what is best, but it also depends strongly on the topic you’re working on and the other people in your team.

A hack day is fun. But it can also be really exhausting, because you have this looming end-of-day deadline and you try really hard to finish before.

Review time

At the end of the day, there was, like always, a review. Again in general there is no specific way to do this. You can just talk about what you’ve done, show pictures or show a presentation and/or a finished product/application. Here are some results from our hack day back in November, to give you a better understanding of what we have been actually doing on that day:

Website migration to next.js framework: We continued the migration and succeeded in updating all of the frontend, deploying it to Vercel and even launched it as our website with dramatically improved performance.
Building a Christmas Game: We created some pixel art for a Christmas Game to send out customized Christmas greetings for clients and friends at Christmas time. There was still a lot to do after this Hackday.
Zoom Extension: By the end of the day we had an example of how this could actually look like: a very light version of Zoom as an overlay on the existing desktop, where you can swap the participants as you like and go into 1on1 sessions and have some easier access to e.g. the raised hand emoji.
Kirby SEO Plug-In: Achievements for the day were, among other things, a marketing website for the plug-in and an updated ReadMe with instructions on how to set up and use the plug-in. You can check out the final product here and here.
Spatial Video Calls: One of the results was the creation of different rooms based on the office environment, but also with some fun rooms. Also a small interface was created (not shown), where you can see your position in this environment. We actually tested out the whole thing during our review call.

We won’t show you any results from the PubQuiz though! We have not yet managed to play it with the team and we won’t spoil any of the questions 😉.

One of the outcomes of the day was also the insight, that not every idea you’ll have for a hack day will succeed. The idea of building a GDPR Tool was great. But in doing some research, the team found out pretty fast, that this was not for us and it would be better to focus our energy on other things. But that’s how it goes, you just find another team and keep on being creative.

As we were also having a feedback round as part of the review, our hack days will be even better hereafter 💪.

You see, it’s really easy to do your own company hack day. And you’ll get something out of it. Maybe new ideas of what you could be working on in the future, even your own products or “just” a team, that grew together a bit more.

So we’ll be expanding our hack day format and the next one will be a two-day event on 20./21.January ’21, focusing on products we could launch. We’re definitely looking forward to that!

diesdas.digital is a studio for strategy, design and code in Berlin, featuring a multidisciplinary team of designers, developers and strategists. We create tailor-made digital solutions with an agile mindset and a smile on our faces. Let’s work together!

Curious to learn more? We’re also on Twitter and Instagram and we highly recommend our Tumblr. You could also subscribe to this publication to get notified when new posts are published! That’s all. Over & out! 🛰

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