A Brief History of Jams

Balance is a core value of Strava — we recognize that the best perspectives are rarely one-sided, and we strive to strike the right balance in everything that we do or make. When it comes to how we work, there’s a balance to be found between careful, deliberate planning and unfettered creativity.

Over the years, Strava has implemented various forms of grassroots efforts and creative outlets for our employees. Six years ago to this very day, we had the first edition of such an effort. Externally, we might refer to it as a hackathon, but internally, we call them Jams. This is the story of how these initiatives have shaped our product and become part of our culture.

This post is the first in a series that intends to present what Jams are, what they are for, how they evolved over time and what we’re doing to make them better.

This post was co-authored by Jeff Remer.

In the Beginning Were Innovation Day(s)

Innovation Days were, for all practical purposes, the first formal hackathon inside Strava. The practice started in June 2011 and encouraged people to work as a pair and deliver the prototype of a viable feature. Despite the plural form, Innovation Days occurred over a single day, the Friday at the end of the monthly product development sprint. On the following Monday — the first day in the upcoming sprint — participants were given a $5 budget that they needed to allocate across their favorite projects, and the winning project was scheduled for work.

Derek Faulkner, Android Engineer, actually demoing live code in the Android emulator in October 2012

After six short months, the format showed its limits: the requirement to form teams and the proposal structure meant that a lot of promising ideas didn’t get the opportunity to be worked on. In its second version, Innovation Days 2.0 allowed individuals to work on any idea they liked, or even the same idea repeatedly. We made demos optional, but innovations that were presented could be voted upon. The results of the votes helped the product team prioritize getting some of the highly rated projects into the product.

Innovation Days were a deliberate intent to bring some amount of creativity into the product. In their second version, the loosened structure and lack of requirements and follow-up didn’t really help us achieve that goal, especially in a growth phase such as the one Strava went through in 2012.

Let there be Jams

In the second half of 2012, Innovation Days were rebranded as Jams, following in the spirit of independent game development events called Game Jams. The goal of the Jams was to bring back some structure and accountability. Jams began as a single-day event but rapidly extended to two and then settled on three days (from Wednesday to Friday). Originally centered around the Engineering organization, Jams became inclusive of the entire company. The demo suddenly involved dozens of projects and a wider and bigger audience and, as a result, we started bringing in snacks and beverages. Assembling the deck and facilitating the event turned into a full-time job for our resident MC.

Engineer Extraordinaire Mateo Ortega, caught while jamming in October 2013

As the format was evolving, so was the frequency at which we held Jams: we progressively went from a monthly to a quarterly event. On occasions, a team or an organization misses Jams because their own roadmap cannot accommodate a three-day interruption. This was the case for the entire Mobile Engineering team in late 2013. After spending months working tirelessly to wrap a release of the app, the team took one full week to let their creative side loose by organizing their own Mobile SuperJams. Since then, the introduction of the mobile release cadence has made it easier to predict and plan for Jams, but we still sometimes need to be flexible and prioritize shipping projects over taking a three-day break from working.

A World of Ideas

By their very nature, the output of Jams is largely unpredictable — many projects started during Jams have made it into the product in one form or another. What started as an integration with Instagram became a full-fledged native photo experience. Feed filters, the Strava Suffer Score, Real-time segments and Mobile Routes all started as Jam projects. Strava Labs emerged as a place for projects to live beyond the three days of Jams: this is where you can find Flyby, the Clusterer, Kodos and many others. And because Jams opened up to the entire company, they have become a forum in which Product and Marketing managers come to pitch and sometimes prototype the next big thing. For others, Jams offer the opportunity to take a hard look at processes where the cruft has accumulated, or pain points where no progress has been made in too long.

Grabbing a snack ahead of the demo (March 2015)

With that said, a large portion of projects remain within the walls of Strava — either because they never intended to ship or because they are not there yet. Over time, what to do with Jam projects has been the topic of several discussions. It would have been hard six years ago to predict where Innovation Days would take us, and striking the balance between everything Jams represent for everyone is something we’re still working on.

In the upcoming posts, we’ll talk in more details about the latest edition of the Jams and about the work we’re doing to make Jams more inclusive and more influential.