The Hackweek rant

Innovation is bullshit

Credit: Grumpy old smoking dude image

CC:BY @drurydrama via Flickr

I wrote this piece in early April, at the end of the second hackweek of the year at Twitter. If you don’t know what HackWeek at Twitter is, get some context before reading this rant.

This rant has been bubbling in my head for a few days. More accurately, for a few nights, between 3 and 5am. I got an email from a friend last week, he works at a large media organization. They have been thinking about launching a labs effort of some sort. He asked me how the R&D department was structured at Twitter. Oh my…

This is obviously a bad question if you know Twitter’s culture. You there isn’t one, the WHOLE company is focused on “innovation” (mandatory air quotes).

While this “innovation” non-sense was simmering on the back burner of my mind during the weekend, serendipitously scrubbing my read-it-maybe-one-day list in instapaper late at night, I stumbled on a year old blog post from Aaron Straup Cope about lots of interesting stuff but for the purpose of this diatribe, quoting Jack Schulze from the London design studio BERG:

"No one cares what you do unless you think about it and no one cares what you think unless you do it."

And it felt to me as the perfect hack week motto, striking a chord, distilling the essence of hacking. I even tweeted the quote during my morning commute via muni (when I had network between two tunnels).

[we need tweet embedding in medium, please]

I realized I was ranting in my head, in my bed, mumbling to myself: you are losing it. Maybe not losing it. Lose yourself. Hashtag Eminem.

[also medium plz: youtube embeds]

Hacking is: obsessing.
Hacking is: can't stop thinking.
Hacking is: I have to do it.

Hacking is: I don't care about the rules. I am doing this because it has to be done. THAT was why I was not sleeping. My three ideas for hackweek where nowhere to be seen… I mean, if you haven't coded a line by Wednesday, you're toast. I play to win. I wasn't playing this time. But it was even worse.

The main difference between talking and doing is that doing is HARD.

I have high hopes from my previous hackweek project. KindSource (née KindStarter). I suggested that we could use it to help teams organize and coalesce for this hackweek. The Thursday night before the project was to be presented to the whole company, I had to ask remove our slides from the deck…

We were not ready, at all. We blew it. We didn't ship in time. We still haven't shipped (working on it).

Doing keeps you honest and humble, because doing great things takes effort. Time. Perseverance.

And doing great thing require thinking. Re-thinking. Trying. Failing. Stopping. Starting. Not fearing. You get to know your weaknesses. If your project is easy, you are not trying hard enough. If your software has no bugs, it's most likely because it doesn't have real users. If you have no dreams, it's because your brain is too full with boring or mundane things. Less TV, more reading.

And all this long pre-amble, this goofy ramble, this geeky gamble, in a language that's my second not my first. What is this rage inside, what is this buzzing noise from which I can't hide, mindfuck drone from the dark side? If you had this mind meld ever happen to you, you know what I mean.

While not hacking, reading the Morozov Meme hustling piece about Oreilly and random Bitcoin frenzy blog posts, I started thinking about my friend asking about innovation again, hashtag airquotes.

What I didn't like about this innovation word was not the semantic implication of the word itself. It was the envy of some corporations to somehow gets this innovation virus by hanging out with cool kids. There is even conferences at several thousand Ks a pop where you can get contaminated, or so have I been told.

This organizational wannabe-ism, sort of a cheap replica of real hacker culture and ethics, bland imitation at best. And thinking about Twitter where the most amazing thing is the density of smart people sharing those values (no air quotes). You can't fake what is not in your DNA, can't improvise a culture from market needs or shareholder creeds.

Real entrepreneurs are misfits. Here's to the crazy ones. The rebels. The trouble makers. They have no respect for the status quo. Hackers are BY DEFINITION not following the rules, that's hacking. I am not sure hacker is even the right word here. It might already be overloaded with too much metaphoric sugar. And don’t get me started on “maker”. My favourite candidate is “Artisan” as we say in French.

One of the most amazing thing I discovered at Twitter is an internal email list where everyone posts their meeting notes. When I discovered you could read all notes from all (most) meetings... overwhelming but amazing. It meant a lot for me. I learned so much.

Hackweek is fantastic because we want it to be. Because it's part what Twitter IS.

But there is a cloud over hackweek. It's a treasure that should be cherished because it can be lost. Lost in all the work that needs to be done, no matter what.

It's a delicate balance, it's often a tough call, but the sadness of not hacking when you could/should cuts really deep. That feeling of losing something that makes you effervescent and on fire and awesome is the worst.

It would be better not to have hackweek that to almost have it. No?

No. Hackweeks are hard because great things are hard. It has to be done. It is being done. You have to ship.

Doing keeps you honest and humble, because doing great things takes great effort. Time. Perseverance.

And doing great thing require thinking. Re-thinking. Trying. Failing. Stopping. Starting. Not fearing.

Looping back to my friend, I had no idea about the right answer until I wrote this rant. How can you make “innovation” happen? It seemed to me to occur naturally under certain conditions but it was hard for me to pinpoint what. If one thing, the spirit of hackweek has shown me something essential. The best thing about hackweek is doing things TOGETHER. This has been a lonely rant.

This past hackweek has seen no code from me. But you, oh you, boy did you step it up, once again. There is no value in top down innovation because hacking is bottom up. Hacking is discovery, hacking is failing, hacking is creating. Hacking IS Art.

The role of the organization, the crucial role, is to provide the right context for it to happen. By essentially giving you the mindspace to get started, the framing and constraints to move it forward and have you ship. By embracing the best of those crazy ideas as part of the actual roadmap. By repeating the process at fixed intervals. By enabling this blank canvas where you can get working on any idea with anyone.

I am so grateful we have hackweek, it's a shining demonstration of what makes Twitter a special place to work. Thanks. I really appreciate that. Can't wait for the next one!