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Hacking creativity: Making time for innovation

Rohan Pearce | July 8, 2013
Yahoo!7 and Atlassian are two companies that are giving their employees the space to be creative with hack days.

Tom worked on one of the winning projects for a recent ShipIt day, improving the Space Sidebar in Confluence to present information that's relevant to the contents of a page once a user begins to scroll down.

"We strive to come up with new ideas all the time and give people the opportunity to work on them - that's something that is quite important to people who apply for a job here," Ryall says.

ShipIt days are one of reasons developers enjoy working at Atlassian, Tom and Ryall say, but they are also a way of sourcing new innovations that deliver concrete value to the company (the company also runs a Google-esque 20 per cent program that lets engineers spend a fifth of their time on projects of their own choosing).

"Just looking at the product I work on, Confluence, we had probably 20 or so projects in the last ShipIt day and out of those, four or five I think are good, solid projects that we're looking to add to the product now," Ryall says.

"Those are things that would not have been considered previously and are things that add value to our customers in ways that we hadn't considered before."

Yahoo!7's Penfold says that hack days have become "a core part" of the company's culture, drawing participation and interest from across the company and helping strengthening IT's brand within the Yahoo!7. He sees the opportunity to take the concept in new directions, adding product-focussed hack days to the schedule, in addition to the current hack day held twice a year.

"One thought is, if we get an agency in or a client in with a brief, and then we split up into teams and work out how to answer that brief in different ways and see what can come out of that," Penfold says.

"It's a different twist on the traditional hack day. It won't replace it - it will be on top of it. That shows the benefits of the hack day that other people [in the business] are seeing."

Getting it right
Telling someone to 'be innovative' rarely bears fruit. And while hack days or hackathons can offer a concrete framework to work on innovative ideas and give people 'permission' to be crazy and creative, there are still pitfalls to be wary of, according to Atlassian and Yahoo!7.

When Atlassian began its ShipIt days, it started with mostly individual projects, but over time the company has tended to encourage teams, Ryall says. This ended up both being more fun and reducing the number of presentations at the end. The company has also attempted a four-day ShipIt instead of the current 24-hour model.


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