Hack Weeks at iZettle

When I am doing research on a company I want to work at, one of the things I look for is their approach towards employee motivation and training/education. For me, it is more important to have a proper educational plan than a slight increase on my base salary.

Many companies, iZettle included, approach this by offering certain budget for conferences and workshops, as well as internal courses and hack days. A hack day is a day in which you can work on whatever project you want. Usually, as far as it has some interest for the company, you have complete freedom.

At iZettle, we have hack weeks. The concept of a hack week is pretty self descriptive: It is basically a hack day that extends to a week. I found it very interesting when I learned about this in the interview, and after 2 hack weeks, I can say it lives up to the expectations.

During the hack week, all the techies pause their daily work to start working on a new project they choose. The idea is to work with people you don’t usually work with, and to work on a project that you like and you choose. There are no limitations or restrictions on what you can do. The company provides whatever you need to complete the project. There are only two conditions: to have fun, and to learn something new.

And that’s the main focus, to learn. For this past hack week, the subject was “maker space”. The main inspiration was to build (quite literally) projects that used external hardware: sensors, screens, etc. We have a 3D printer in the office that gave us many possibilities. A lot of fun and interesting projects came out of the hack week.

Hack weeks are, in my opinion, a really good chance of learning just about anything you want. It is a good way of getting to know more about your colleagues, and challenge yourself to finish something from scratch in a week. Also, they provide a break from the routine. After a hack week, I always go back to normal work with more energy and motivation.

This hack week has been special for me, since I never played around with electronics before, and I discovered that I just LOVE IT. We build a sensor to detect when our ping pong table is free. People can check the status of the table through an internal site, or with a slack command. We also attached two buttons to the table to keep the score, that is shown on a screen.

This is a high level schematics of how the project was assembled:

  • A PIR Motion sensor is attached to a Particle Photon microcontroller. When movement is detected for a certain time, an event is sent to the Particle Cloud indicating that the table is Busy. When no movement is detected for some time, a “Free” event is sent.
  • Events with the current score are also sent when the table buttons are pressed.
  • From the Particle Cloud, we configured two WebHooks. One sends the Busy/Free information to a Lambda function. This Lambda saves the current status (busy/free) in a database. The other one sends the events as they come to the small Python server that is running the score Dashboard.
  • The Dashboard shows real time information about the status of the table, the current score and time played.
  • We created a slack command /pingisstatus that uses the Lambda function so that anyone can know if the table is free or busy without moving from their chairs.

There were many other interesting projects that came out form the Hack Week:

  • A device showing the total sales of the day. The device was attached to a Santa Claus that would start dancing when a purchase greater than 1000SEK was made (remember, this was before Christmas).
  • A second screen for the merchant, facing the customer. This would help when introducing emails of phone numbers to get purchases receipts, for example.
  • Enabled authentication using a YubiKey to our internal admin system.

And many more…

In summary, hack weeks have a great value both for the company, which sometimes gets features added to the product out of the hack weeks, and for the employees, that get a boost of learning and motivation.

Keep on it!