Everyone wants to do it, but the 'how' of innovation can often feel elusive. For Craig Penfold, the head of technology at Yahoo!7, innovation often involves late nights, pizza and, at around 5am in the morning, a Spotify playlist of '80s trash.
Yahoo!7 is one of a number of companies that have found value in instituting regular hack days, or hackathons, that offer employees the chance to step away from their day-to-day jobs and focus on scratching an itch — prototyping a new product or improving an existing one — for an intense 24-hour period.
Yahoo!7's hack days have proved so successful that the company, which is a 50-50 joint venture between Seven West Media and Yahoo!, increased their schedule to twice a year from the original annual event.
The 24-hour hack day starts late on a Thursday, with employees from across the company, not just in Penfold's team, stopping what they're doing and registering to participate. Teams often work through the night, fuelled by fast food, the occasional beer, the aforementioned dubious selection of music, and a breakfast of bacon and egg rolls for those who make it to the next morning.
The hacking finishes at close of business Friday and on the following Monday, 90-second pitches are presented in front of the whole company and prizes are given out for different categories, such as utility hacks and the best externally facing hack (and when it's needed, Penfold says, the 'flugtag' award — "it's a great idea but it would never fly"). For the first time, in the April hack day an external judge participated: James Filmer, the chief innovation officer for media agency UM Australia.
Hack days aren't just a feel good exercise for engineers, however. "In the lead up to hack day I always get people from across the business, from sales, from finance, saying 'When's the next hack day? When's the next hack day?'" Penfold says.
"Even those who aren't directly involved are heavily supportive of it and come out of it really inspired. And getting those people who have those ideas but can't necessarily do them to try to pitch their ideas to an engineer and partner them up is great for the business as well."
Those ideas that come out from Yahoo!7's hack days (minus, perhaps, the flugtag-award candidates) have a concrete life beyond the 24 hours of sweat, blood and '80s pop, feeding innovative ideas back into the business.
Ideas coming out of hack days have led to adjustments to the technology roadmap, notably with Yahoo!7's popular social TV app for mobile devices, FANGO. The most recent hack day, in mid-April, saw teams pitch ideas ranging from enhancements to mobile offerings to adding more sophisticated real-time analytics to the company's online network.
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