Christian Heilmann

Innovating with Hackdays – a talk at ITV

Monday, August 8th, 2011 at 5:18 pm

This morning I was invited to the ITV offices in London, England to give a bit of information about hackdays, running them and participating in them. ITV are planning a big internal hack day and wanted to know what mistakes to avoid.

The slides are available on Slideshare:


What makes developers happy?

  • Delivering something
  • Getting recognition for your work
  • Solving problems
  • Learning something new
  • Finding ways to improve things

Our dis-comfort zone and how it holds us back

All of this is pretty hard to do in our day-to-day work as we are caught in a cycle of delivery that takes up all of our time. Hardly any company leaves free time for their developers to use as they please and it is hard to make that measurable. It is also very hard to innovate when you are very close to the subject matter as you tend to see more problems to fix than opportunities to extend existing products. We sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees.

Hackdays are an opportunity to leave our comfort (or dis-comfort) zone – for 24 hours we can leave the day-to-day grind behind and go nuts playing with processes, systems and technologies.

Hackdays mean you need to focus and you can reach out

  • Take 24 hours to build something new – limiting yourself means you need to focus on the bare necessities and do the most important things first
  • Disregard all the protocols you have in delivery – this is your chance to deliver something without worrying about the paperwork
  • Collaborate with people you haven’t worked with – as everybody is out to play for the day this is a great chance to get to know each other and learn about the pains of other departments
  • Deliver a working prototype and explain what you want to achieve with it – let the code and the design and the work talk for you
  • Prepare a damn good 60 second pitch – a skill that you will find makes meetings easier for you later on

Why take part in a hack day?

A big mistake people make is to think that hack days are there for the company and for your boss to test you and/or shine with what you are producing. If that is the case, then your company is doing them wrong. First and foremost hackdays are for you:

  • Show off what you are interested in – no matter how geeky
  • Learn something new – is there a technology you always wanted to play with?
  • Get out of your shell – partner with people with complimentary skills and give a great pitch.
  • Release something on your terms and without waiting!
  • Show that if your manager is not breathing down your neck you can release awesome in no timw

Scratch your own itch

First and foremost you should always find something to hack on that you are passionate about. Scratch your own itch – don’t try to impress others by hacking on something cool or currently hot for the company. If you don’t believe in it, your pitch will be bad and you will feel like a phoney.

The awesome that is hackday can leak into day-to-day operations

Sometimes the outcome of a hackday can affect day to day operations in a very beneficial way:

  • Write a tool to make a day-to-day process more efficient
  • Show that by using a certain tool or technology you can deliver something very quickly
  • Make the first step to learn that skill you always wanted to have but always pushed further out
  • Show that your department can innovate and deliver
  • Join a community outside the company

Deliver, don’t plan and talk

Hackdays are all about the delivery – we can (and should) talk about the hacks once we are done.

  • Don’t bother building the best thing ever
  • Concentrate on one thing and deliver a working prototype
  • Steal, borrow, cheat… whatever it takes, get the message across
  • Start something – make the code available
  • If the hack works only on your machine, also create a screencast ( rocks for that!)

Use whatever tool you need

Whatever makes you a good deliverer, use that. You have 24 hours and we want to see things working (at least as a prototype).

The more you can re-use and connect with each other, the less you have to write (and later on document) yourself. Simple, really.

Prepare your pitch/delivery

When it comes to delivering the pitch of your hack there is no time for foreplay. Go straight for the jugular:

  • Show what your hack does
  • Explain the effect this has – why is it a cool hack?
  • Give ideas where this can go and how the company could benefit from it

What about after the hack day?

Once all hacks are shown, the voting has been done and the winners announced, all the pizza eaten and all coffee and drinks consumed it is time to reap the rewards of the hackday and use what has been shown for good. For this we need you to prepare a bit.

  • Have your hack as a package for people to show around the company (screencast, screenshots, working code, 3 sentence pitch). This allows managers to show your hack to product managers and get it into production. If your hack is a non-working link, that can’t be done. So move from localhost to somewhere the world can see what you did.

  • Keep hacking on it (freetime or ask your boss to get some extra time)

  • Demand follow-up from your company! Keep pestering people for feedback and statuses on what happened to the cool hacks you saw. This is not for a day – innovation needs support

What I want from a hackday in a TV company

As you are all about the moving pictures I’d love to see some hacking with open video and standards. All the stuff I will cover here is documented and can be amended at

We lately had a competition about open video and there were some really cool entries you can look at and you can download the source codes as inspiration:

  • The video effects demo shows a scene from Jurassic Park and changes the look and feel of the video container itself according to what is happening on the screen
  • The scene detection demo recognises when the movie changes drastically and creates screenshots when it happens
  • The Add Track demo shows how a subtitling interface can look like in HTML5
  • The Facial recognition and analytics demo allows annotation of videos by detecting people in them

Furthermore there is a lot of documentation on the subject available:

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