Hack Week The Endgame Way
Several Endgamers attended Black Hat in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. Some stayed and many more arrived for DEF CON. Keeping the theme alive, we just finished up this summer’s Vegas hack week, where engineers, data scientists, product managers, and even a social scientist all gathered to pursue new endeavors outside the normal sprint cycles and Jira tickets. With the team split between San Francisco and DC, it was a great time not only to see if we could quickly hack an idea into reality, but it also gave the team a chance to spend some quality time together.
The purpose of hack week is to set aside time outside of the office for self-forming teams to pursue new ideas. The week culminates with demos by each team, followed of course by a celebration of all the hard work and great projects that emerged. The projects include product enhancements, internal tools creation, data exploration and validation, and even execution of brand new product ideas. However, there are many intangibles that accompany the week that have a lasting impact on the company’s culture and continued emphasis on innovation:
Knocking out the Tech Bucket List: Everyone has a bucket list, and while we are busy in our day-to-day work demands, we don’t always get a chance to fully explore the promising tangents we encounter every day. During this week, we get the chance to explore new technologies, libraries, data sources, and methodologies. Together, these feed into the continuous whiteboarding sessions where ideas are knocked around within and across teams, with the assistance—of course—of plenty of caffeine.
Failure is an option: This may seem simplistic, and possibly even counterintuitive, but the hack week fosters an environment of risk-taking and exploration. The week provides the opportunity to explore ideas without being burdened with whether they succeed or not. Of course, the goal is not to fail, but more often than not failure may close one door but open another, serendipitously providing insights into new solutions or approaches. In Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, he explains, “Innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes…”, and these mistakes are an intrinsic component of exploration and innovation.
Cross-pollination of ideas: The group that gathered in Vegas represents a broad range of expertise and backgrounds. Given this diversity, it’s important to foster an environment that encourages the cross-pollination of ideas within and across teams. More often than not, people use this time to brainstorm ideas with groups other than their day-to-day teams about the projects they’re tackling. In fact, on my hack week team alone we counted contributions from at least three different projects. Since we had an astrophysicist participating, it’s almost essential to throw in a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson (writing for Foreign Affairs). He notes, “cross-pollination involving a diversity of sciences much more readily encourages revolutionary discoveries.” While we didn’t expect revolutionary, I certainly saw some real excitement about some of the breakthroughs.
Mandatory Fun: In the spirit of Weird Al Yankovic’s latest album, hack week similarly disregards many corporate-style team-building events, and favors a more natural (and fun!) environment for getting to know colleagues professionally and personally. This is especially important given all of the new folks attending their first Endgame hack week. It gives each of us some time to demonstrate our own skills, while learning more about the capabilities and backgrounds of our colleagues. We also identified some interesting nocturnal eating habits, and possibly even invented a few new dance moves along the way.
It’s safe to say we accomplished many of these intangible goals for the week. And who knows, it just may be the case that what happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas, and will ignite future efforts on our teams back home.
Want to hear more about Endgame Hack Week? Read John Herren’s perspective here.