Hackdays at tails.com

We started Hackday about 3 years ago, with a team of 7 engineers. Hackdays are now a big affair involving at least 40 people across Engineering, Data, UX and Product teams. For us they’re all about giving ourselves space to get creative, to think outside the box, and to take time for ourselves to mentally workout. We hold them every two months for 24 hours, starting at 6pm on a Thursday and ending 6pm on the Friday (although we’ve had no sleepovers in the office… yet!)

The real goal is to learn something from the day, with the added bonus that we may actually complete something - participation is a requirement, but completion is most definitely not. Nothing is prescribed, and what you work on is entirely up to you. It is not a day to fix bugs and you don’t have to work on something tied to business metrics - unless you want to, there is no stigma either way. Likewise, you can hack solo, in pairs or in teams.

The main purpose is knowing why you want to hack something - having this goal in mind helps focus everyone on making the most out of the day. These goals can be really wide ranging, from wanting to learn a particular language or framework, or experimenting with a new way of working, or fixing a problem you face on a daily basis.

Why we hack

It’s easy to forget that although we work in a tech environment not everyone can see the immediate benefit of building seemingly silly tools, like TrumpBots or Dog Breed Games. We need hackdays to stay ahead of the game - often by building seemingly silly things with new cutting edge technologies, to build on our own understanding of them. Our learnings from hackdays could then unlock exciting new features, insights or ways of working that could help drive our business forward.

Fortunately for us, the wider team at tails.com understand our need for and the benefit of hackdays. We also actively encourage others at tails to provide ideas for things to hack - a recent idea was a dog check-in system to make it easier for people to get involved with dog walking. Most importantly, we aim to be as inclusive and transparent as possible by holding presentations at the end of the day, which everyone can join (with a beer, or two, in hand!)

A friendly reminder to the rest of the business

What we hack

We have had solo hacks, pair hacks, and even a cross-functional team hack of 6 people.

We’ve had hacks that solve real time bugbears like a meeting calendar using Google Calender API (to prove that we really have too many meetings), a mortgage vs rental calculator, and an occupancy checker for the men’s loos. We’ve had some really ambitious hacks, like a rebrand in a day, an automatic train delay refund claim and an integration with Alexa. We’ve had hacks far-ranging from a curl football score service to attempting to refactor a gnarly part of our codebase, complete with tests, in a day. We’ve even had a Product Manager writing code!

We’ve also had some hacks that have gone on to be implemented, like our feature-switch tool that saves engineers from going into the live database (silent scream), and our Content Management System that got revamped to become more self-serve, saving engineers valuable time. We also had a hack to understand Google Analytics better, that then lead to a cross-company workshop, levelling everyone up.

Samuel Hockham presenting his hack for an Image Resize Service, featuring Mario's head

Things we’ve learnt

Feedback is super important. It’s a day for everyone and not a prescribed event so everyone should be involved with how it’s shaped.

Different intents can deliver the same project. For example, last Hackday we had an onboarding slackbot delivered; one team pair-programmed, from a Team Leader perspective they wanted to build a tool that would help to onboard new team members and save themselves time. The other team was a solo engineer who wanted to deploy a small Flask based slackbot to AWS, the slackbot just happened to be for onboarding. Same result, but very different learnings.

There has to be fun but there also has to be a certain element of competition - with stickers as a prize, obviously! We’ve introduced 5 awards which vary each hackday - with the previous winners choosing the next categories. We’ve had anything from ‘Most Least Practical’ to ‘AI - Ambition Interrupted’ to ‘Hold My Beer’.

There has to be pizza! And no one says no to coffee.

Why we love hackdays

Happy hackers

Hackdays are also about together-ness, now more than ever as our teams are scaling rapidly. We always have a collective morning standup and take a casual drop-in lunch together, giving us all a chance to mingle and chat. Having a hard cut-off time with presentations starting at 5pm means we all have to stop and gather together, and celebrate as a team. We always try and roll Hackday into the company’s Friday Beers too, which helps keep the spirit going.

Hackdays are also about celebrating - celebrating each others achievements as well as our own and also celebrating how fortunate we are to be able to stretch our creativity and our brains in this way - with dogs, and arguably more importantly, with pizza.