The morning after Nilay became Verge's editor in chief, I got a phone call from him telling me that he wanted to do a hack week. "That's a great idea, let's do it!" I said, agreeing to a thing that I thought would happen in a few months, after much planning and scheming.
"Let's do it next Monday," was Nilay's original suggestion. We pushed it out a week from there, hosting a hack week from Aug.18-22.
Lesson 1: Not planning can be a good thing
The hack weeks I've personally organized in the past have been very meticulously planned out, much like product team's Vax was. People submit ideas, they do a bunch of upfront work, there's sometimes a theme and predefined teams. And that works for certain types of events. What I never anticipated was that it would also work to not plan.
We did this a week after the idea came about. By not having a strict set of projects lined up and set teams, ideas were able to naturally arise and editorial-product collaborations could happen more organically. We ended up hacking on a per-story basis, rather than the overall systems.
Lesson 2: Ok, but a little bit of planning is also good
That all said, we did make sure to have a few tools lined up (all 100% stolen from Yuri) to get people's brains turning about what's possible. The Wednesday before Hack Week, I set up a little dashboard that included links to all the tools, docs on how to use them, and other resources relevant to getting hack week started. This ensured that we could have a few items ready to go on Day 1, since we were playing out our hack week in real time, in public.
Lesson 3: It's about more than hacking on technology
We were hacking on content and on culture and on relationships. It was under this premise that we were able to get away with less planning. People who had never interacted were talking to each other. Editorial got insight into what makes a good product, and product got insight into what's important editorially. We were able to peek at each other's workflows and ask each other questions.
Takeaways and planning your own hack week
- Make sure someone from each discipline is involved. I mistakenly totally forgot about including designers the first time around (apart from the interns) and we would have struggled and failed without them.
- Make sure to secure actual, physical space. On day 1, we ended up making a mini product room outside of the product room because there wasn't anywhere to sit, and more importantly, there was nowhere to plug in our dying laptops. By day two, we had cleared out space in the main newsroom to sit with plenty of outlet real estate.
- If you're not going to plan, do a daily scrum. Without people working on dedicated projects, it quickly became easy to lose track of who is working on what and easy to not set and meet goals. Doing a daily scrum helps you achieve this. Hell, I'd throw in an afternoon checkin as well, since the pace of work is much quicker.