How Yahoo!7 kick starts innovation with hack days

Achieving 540,000 downloads for a mobile app in Australia is certainly nothing to sneeze at. But what's interesting about Yahoo!7's social TV mobile app, Fango is that the original impetus for its creation came not from some corporate committee, but from a prototype cobbled together in a mad 24-hour scramble.

Fango was released in November last year by Yahoo!7, a 50-50 joint venture between Yahoo! and Seven West Media, and is a product of a the company's 'hack days', which have become an important institution for promoting innovation among its workforce.

"We give people a 24-hour period to pause what they're doing in their local roadmap and innovate on something they want to do," explains Craig Penfold, head of technology at the digital media company.

"It could be something they think is really cool, a new platform they want to work on, a utility to help us do our job, a new way of visualising data."

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Participants often work through the night. "Not everyone does that, but you do often get a core group of people," Penfold says. "This year we actually did a great job: We set up the main training room next door so all the engineers were together, we had music going, we had the fu?ball table in there. We had our CEO come and cook bacon and egg rolls the next morning for everyone.

"Some of the coding you end up doing at three o clock in the morning is fairly ordinary," Penfold notes, "but it's all part of the fun and all part of the excitement."

The technology team started holding hack days in 2005, a year before Yahoo! Australia and New Zealand was replaced by Yahoo7! It began as an annual event with a format based on the experience by Yahoo! in the US, but Penfold says its usefulness has seen it expand to a twice yearly schedule.

During the 24-hour period, individuals and teams have carte blanche to work on anything that interests them that they think could push the business forward. At the end of the 24 hours, participants have 90 seconds to make a pitch in front of the entire company, and an executive team hands out prizes and selects the winning idea.

It's a cross-division event, Penfold says. Although the day has obvious appeal for members of his technology group — Yahoo!7's software engineers "are talking about it in the months before and then also in the months after" — it's not confined to them, drawing interest from the sales team and finance, for example.

Nor is it merely a feel-good exercise to keep the IT team happy: Penfold says that some of Yahoo!7's hack days have led to the company altering its plans to take advantage of innovative ideas. "We do definitely try and shift our roadmap around for some of these great ideas we do see the results of that," he says.

In addition to Fango, hack days have had a hand in creating the impetus for other apps, including the company's TV guide for smartphones and Yahoo!7 Food. "For the [ideas] we really, really like and think match our strategy we implement them," Penfold says.

"When you give people time to be able to be creative themselves they can really come up with some great ideas, so that's essentially what that is — giving anyone the chance to come up with great ideas," Penfold says. "We do encourage that in our normal business as well, but this gives people the chance to actually prototype it and build on it as well."

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The technology group has also been responsible for organising unconferences, with Yahoo!7 holding its third ever unconference this month. As is traditional with an unconference, the day starts with no agenda. Instead, participants, which unlike hack days are confined to the members of the engineering, Web development and ad technology groups, develop an agenda by posting sticky notes on a board indicating topics they either want to talk about or hear about from co-workers.

Penfold says that as well as being useful for finding new ideas for the company, the hack days have played a role in attracting and retaining engineers. The developers on his team "do really, really love hack day," he says.

"They love the ability to be creative and to innovate and then to present it in front of the whole company, so it's a great talent retention tool. It's [also] a great talent acquisition tool. We are looking at hiring at the moment and people do hear about hack days and really get excited about it and want to come and work for us."

"They tend to be more technical sessions than anything," Penfold says. "Exploring new technologies that are out there or what's going on in Yahoo, but it tends to be new technologies and what we could do at Yahoo!7 with them."

Topics in the group's recent unconference looked at topics including Yahoo!'s open source Cocktails platform and Hadoop, the open source framework for dealing with Big Data .

Once topics have been finalised, the team holds multiple streams of 15-minute lightening talks. During recent unconference, the team "had three rooms operating, 15 minutes at a time. We had 12 talks in an hour and a half, followed by a BBQ and beer on the pier," Penfold says.

"It's a really great way to share ideas, share knowledge, inspire the team to investigate more technology, more innovation that sort of thing."

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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