As the first hackathon for the combined YOOX NET-A-PORTER GROUP kicks off in our development centres of Bologna and London, I’d like to explain why NET-A-PORTER ran internal Hackathons for several years, and why we’ll continue to do so as the YOOX NET-A-PORTER GROUP.
Isn’t hacking illegal?
The ‘hacking’ we refer to is not the kind you hear about in the news. The term ‘hack’ predates computers, and meant “a solution to a problem that’s quick, possibly dirty but sometimes elegant” long before it came to be associated with criminal behaviour and vandalism online. Despite the prevalence of the second sense in popular culture, the first, creative sense of the word still applies to the many ‘hack days’ and ‘hackathons’ that exist around the world, and that’s why we use it here.
‘Hackathon‘ is a portmanteau of ‘hack’ and ‘marathon’, and is the widely accepted way of referring to events where concentrated creativity is combined with both collaboration, and maybe a little competition too.
So why hack?
There are a number of reasons to take part in a hackathon, contributing both to the business and to your development as a technical professional.
New techniques and technologies come out all the time, and a hackathon is often a good way for developers to try out something new — to kick its tyres and take it for a drive around the block, as it were.
Learning often happens best when you’re able to try out something crazy, which might just work (or might just go down in flames!). We actively encourage our developers to try things out that would never pass muster during normal software development, and we hope they’ll present what happened, even if it’s not what they were hoping for. Everybody learns, and we even give a prize for the Most Valiant Hack, to reward those who tried the hardest to achieve something awesome.
The collaborative atmosphere of our hackathons contributes to learning. Both the severe time constraint, and trying to solve a specific problem, can focus mental effort on new tools in a way that ‘spare time’ and playing around don’t.
Severe time constraint, you say?
Teams have from about 10:30am on the first day until about 3pm on the second to do all the work that contributes to their hack. This severe time constraint exists to focus the mind onto the essence of the solution, because there are many things that are just not possible in such a short period, so all those options are just taken off the table. Perhaps surprisingly for those who haven’t done this before, you can still make meaningful progress on an idea in just a day or so, provided that you’ve done your homework beforehand, and you don’t waste time on the day.
Sometimes, people from different business teams have a common itch they’d like to scratch, so our hackathons provides an opportunity for working with people from other teams, or even other parts of the business outside of Tech. As we have done sometimes in the past, we’ve broadened this first YNAP Hackathon out to the entire business with three themes to help them get involved: Mobile, China and Improving Our Tools.
Moreover, we’re encouraging the formation of teams that bridge London and Bologna, to help drive our technical integration forward, at least in a small way.
Revisiting a solution
You might have an idea about an entirely new way to attack a problem that already has a solution, particularly if the existing solution is slow or cumbersome, or there is something just inelegant about it.
It can be difficult to justify setting aside time within normal work to re-solve a problem, so hackathons can be a way for you to make enough progress on your idea to create that justification (or rule it out for good). In any event, a more detailed exploration of existing problems and potential solutions will probably enrich your understanding of the business or our technical estate.
Creating and Making
Writing software is a creative activity, as much as any other kind of creative endeavour. The difference is, we have machines that can do things with what we write, and those things are sometimes awesome. When you write software for a living, you can sometimes become bored with the familiarity and predictability of your work. Hackathons allow you to write software in an entirely different area for a change, letting you flex mental muscles that don’t often get used during your day job.
No matter what they work on, everyone gets to work on their story-telling in order to produce a compelling presentation at the end of the Hackathon that might wow colleagues, and even win them a prize.
The general workflow of Agile delivery teams suggests that development is always supposed to be driven by requirements from the business. But development team members have ideas too, and they can sometimes solve problems that the business never even knew it had. A hackathon is a way to reverse the flow, allowing developers to pitch ideas for things back to the business; this is probably the most obvious tangible outcome of our Hackathons.
This is why we always have judges from the business as well as tech, because we want to give developers an opportunity to pitch their ideas for new ways of doing things. Especially for non-technical people, it’s often easier to show how something could work than just trying to describe it.
Moreover, being able to get an new idea or concept across to people quickly is an extremely valuable skill in almost any discipline. The severe time constraint for doing your hack focuses the mind onto the essence of the solution, but the extremely severe time constraint for presenting your idea forces you to explain it with efficiency and clarity.
Extremely severe time constraint, you say?
Everyone who presents their hack to the judges (and assembled colleagues) has just two minutes to present their whole idea. In two minutes, you’ll be able to show at most three or four slides, say maybe 90-150 words, and have a demo that lasts maybe 60-90 seconds.
This may sound scarily short, but that’s enough time for four average-length television commercials. Structured well, you can say a lot in two minutes. One reason we have such a short presentation period is to avoid wearing out our judges. We have often had 30 or more presentations at previous hackathons, and it’s tough for the judges to bring the right level of concentration to so many presentations if we allow them to last more than two minutes. (Other Hackathons, such as Over the Air, have an even stricter 90-second presentation slot. Our hackathons give presenters a whole 30 seconds extra!)
It’s important that our hackathons are not seen as a burden. We want them to be enjoyable, so that everyone who takes part brings enthusiasm, creativity and a willingness to learn. Hackathons are one of the benefits of working for YOOX NET-A-PORTER GROUP, and we want everyone to enjoy taking part.