How Hack Days Work at Magoosh (and Why They’re Awesome!)
Hello! My name is Albert (you can also call me Albs or Al-b), and I’m a software engineer at Magoosh. On a day-to-day basis, I spend most of my time working on projects we’ve prioritized for the quarter, which can oftentimes take weeks or months to complete. When I’m not doing that, I’m working on maintenance tasks such as bug fixes and code clean-up. Although I enjoy this work, Hack Days at Magoosh gives me the opportunity to explore new and shiny projects without worrying about ruthlessly prioritizing my time. That’s why Hack Days are one of my favorite parts about working at Magoosh.
Hack Days provide sweet opportunities to try something new, and in the spirit of Communication > Efficiency and Learning > Knowing (two of Magoosh’s core values), I want to share how our company organizes fun, impactful Hack Days and showcases some awesome hacks created by people from all over Magoosh (not just the engineering team).
Magoosh Hack Days last two days, usually on a Thursday and Friday. Our product director, Melanie Oei, starts by sending out an announcement a couple of weeks in advance to let everyone know we have Hack Days coming up. Some key points from this announcement:
- Pick projects that you believe will have positive impact on Magoosh. They don’t need to relate your department or a currently scoped project.
- You can’t force other people to work with you, so if you’d like other people to help you, get creative. Try to make trades (e.g. One of our former engineers, Zach, worked on a Zendesk widget in exchange for our Director of Student Help, Kevin Rocci, dressing up in a Sushi Chef costume).
- Check the Asana Hack Days project for ideas that others have added to the backlog over time for inspiration, and claim your idea once you’re set so that people can know what you’re working on.
- Feel free to skip out on Hack Days. It’s completely optional. You can work on regular work instead.
Even though this event is designed to be fun, there is a lot of care taken in communicating the timeline, inspiration, and resources available so that every Magoosher can take advantage of Hack Days.
The Hacking + Demos
Once Hack Days arrives, we have a 15-minute kickoff meeting for people to share what they’re working on, and that gives way to more collaboration opportunities. As each person announces his or her project, everyone oohs and aahs for ideas that they like or laughs for sillier ones. Then we’re off! Hacking happens during the normal work day and there’s no pressure to keep working into the night like some of the hackathons I participated in while in college. We get lunch catered on both days so that it’s easier to stay focused during the work sprint. At the end of the two days, we go around and present what we worked on, and everyone is encouraged to present even if they didn’t finish what they set out to do. Listening to Hack Days demos is a great chance to see some cool projects and to feel how supportive Magooshers are to each other.
After we finish Hack Days, Melanie collects feedback from everyone and shares the results with the company (feedback is a big part of Magoosh’s culture). In the context of Hack Days, the feedback and metrics we track tell us when to do another Hack Days and how to make Hack Days better. For example, we know from collecting feedback that an average of 60–70% Magooshers participate during each Hack Days. Most people enjoy it and find this time spent to be impactful, but surveys also tell us that satisfaction depends largely on when in the quarter Hack Days are scheduled, how much encouragement there is from management to participate, as well as how formal of a collaboration process exists during the hacking. Based on this data, we can work to improve our Hack Days each time they happen and optimize for maximum team enjoyment and participation.
Some of my favorite hacks
I’ve been working at Magoosh for about a year and a half, and during that time the company has hosted four Hackathons. It’s especially cool when the projects we work on during Hack Days actually end up being prioritized later on. For example, Melanie brought in an Amazon Echo and joked about how it’d be cool if Magoosh made a skill for it. I thought that was actually an awesome idea, so during one Hack Days, I created an adaptation of our most popular mobile apps in the form of an Alexa Skill: Magoosh Vocabulary Builder. The hack took me one Hack Days to prototype, and then another 2–3 days to finish enough to submit to the Amazon store for certification. I enjoyed mashing existing Magoosh content with Amazon’s new voice API and working with Melanie to scope features down into a usable skill. On the way, I learned about the Magoosh vocabulary API, Amazon’s Lambda functions, and used Node.js in production for the first time.
To my surprise, the Alexa skill quickly became one of the Amazon store’s most popular trivia skills, with 12,000 weekly active users and a 4-star rating over 100+ reviews. And because of that, we’re now prioritizing the creation of more skills. It’s a lot of fun for me to explore this new technology and it’s great to apply the coding standards and strategies we have in other parts of our codebase to new projects.
Here are some more of my favorite products and features that have come out of Magoosh Hack Days:
Magoosh Vocabulary Chrome Extension
This hack, created by Zack Mayeda (engineering), puts a random GRE vocabulary word on every new tab you open in the Chrome browser along with a definition and sample sentence. You can even click on the play button to hear a sample pronunciation of the word. So far, almost 30,000 students have downloaded the extension.
My Cat is Studying for the GRE
This hack was made by Rachel Wisuri and Lena Brooks (marketing) and was inspired by the goal of making the cutest Magoosh video of all time. I think they succeeded. You can take a look for yourself and let me know.
Highbrow: Most Influential Business School Case Studies
Peter Poer (content and operations) compiled a list of business school case studies and published them as a series of lessons on the Highbrow email course platform. Over 5,000 students have signed up for this 10-day course.
Aria (a former engineer) added LaTeX formatting capability to our admin interface so that we no longer have to upload images to make math formulas look nice. Mike McGarry, our beloved GMAT curriculum manager, was especially ecstatic about this hack.
Of course, our Hack Days process hasn’t always been as polished as it is now. I’ve heard that Hack Days has evolved a lot over time — it used to only span one day (which means we didn’t have as much time to experiment), did not have lunch catered (so the event felt more like a normal work day), and didn’t start with any brainstorming process. We’ve now implemented all these parts and even have fun side-events during the hackathon like guess-the-baby-picture and music playlist swapping. If you’re looking to implement a regular hackathon-type event at your workplace, the key to making it better is to just start with something and then get feedback!
I’m grateful that Magoosh Hack Days have expanded my skills as an engineer. I’ve taken these opportunities to exercise fast prototyping and work with people in different departments. For example, during our next Hack Days, I’m planning to team up with our data scientist, Sam Ju, and our in-house vocabulary wizard, Chris Lele to build out a new mobile app game.
I also appreciate how these events have bolstered our team’s culture. When we regularly celebrate experimentation and innovation, good things happen: I become more receptive to receiving and processing criticism on my work, everybody’s fun ideas turn into valuable investments, and our students ultimately gain access to a better studying experience.
Interested in working at Magoosh? Check out our open positions.
If you don’t see an open position that’s perfect for you, please submit your resume via the general application.
Learn more about our philosophy and culture here.