The history of Hack Day

With Hack Day nearly upon us here in London, I've been looking back at how the program has evolved. The Wikipedia entry on Hack Day defines the format pretty well ("an open participatory hacking session where attendees are encouraged to create web applications that utilize one or more of Yahoo's APIs and open source libraries") but it's a lot more than that. As Havi Hoffman put it, "Hack Day is a showcase - recognition and celebration - of grassroots engineering ingenuity that is happening every day now."

Here's a brief history of Hack Day to date, starting with our initial event:

December 8, 2005
With many sources of inspiration behind us, the first internal Hack Day launched within the Search team as an experiment in driving grassroots innovation. Hackers were given total freedom to pursue their ideas, some food and drink for sustenance, and presentations to your peers at the end of the day. The event exceeded all expectations. When the number of demos tripled our initial expectations, we improvised a new rule on the spot: only 90 seconds to present. The die was cast for future events.

March 24, 2006
The second internal Hack Day was even bigger, and the hacks started getting more sophisticated. On only the second event, a culture started coalescing within the company, best explained by Matt McAlister's post, "Top 10 reasons why Hack Day rocks". There was clear momentum.

April 21, 2006
Hack Day went international as the Yahoo! Bangalore team jumped into the game, and they even launched a product out of the effort called Our City that has become a big success in India. You can read more about the Our City story. GigaOM found this interesting, too:

"Taking bookmarks from, events from Upcoming, Flickr photos, News and even blogs. Flickr modules are seriously hot. They are taking data from Wikipedia and adding it to the mix... Pretty easy to get a quick snapshot of what? happening in a city. If they can roll this out across the world, I think they easily best Google? local efforts."

The Bangalore experience confirmed a feeling I had all along -- the hacker spirit is universal.

June 15-16, 2006
All Yahoo! staff in the Sunnyvale Headquarters were then encouraged to participate in the June Hack Day in 2006. We had well over 100 demos. The results of Hack Day began to really show both in the way people operated internally and in the ways our products started improving. Teams began building new hacks on top of infrastructure from prior Hack Days.

July 4, 2006
Hack Day #2 in Bangalore. They now have their own polished and very successful program.

July 6, 2006
We then tried a pan-European Hack Day and linked the presentations from London, Germany and France. Despite a few glitches in the demo process, the hackers were really inspired and started pushing for more. They continue to run their own local program just like the US and Bangalore teams.

September 29, 2006
After so many successes with Yahoo! engineers hacking on Yahoo's platforms, bringing outside developers in to hack on the APIs we offer on the Yahoo! Developer Network made complete sense. Like our internal Hack Days, we wanted to step aside and leave plenty of room to let our outside developers be the stars of the show. We were looking forward to getting together with our developer community, but had no idea just how fantastically successful the event would be. Here are some of the numbers from that spectacle.:

54 hacks
55 dozen Krispy Kremes
250 pizzas
400 Hackers
4000+ flickr photos

I still can't believe how well it went, leaving some people to say quite simply: "Yahoo! is the s***". As I explained previously:

"If anyone out there is wondering how we pulled this off, I offer one clue: total pros rolling up their sleeves to do whatever needed to be done...I learned that inspiration might be the world? only renewable energy source and it scales like a [insert expletive here]."

9 months later, I still feel just as strongly about it.

Recognizing the universal hacker spirit, it made sense to take the Open Hack Day concept abroad. The UK team was particularly receptive, and we found that there were some similar concepts being tested at places like the BBC. Their Backstage team has a very similar approach to openness with the developer community, and we immediately realized that Hack Day could evolve into something even bigger. We knew instantly that we were on to something good:

"One result of the first Open Hack Day was that our expectations of what a developer event could and should be were raised dramatically. Then we had the nice problem of figuring out how to do it again."

This is a great problem to have. As we extend Hack Day internationally, I think we'll always go back to some of those original inspirations, particularly Eric Raymond's seminal explanation of what it means to hack:

"Hacking might be characterized as 'an appropriate application of ingenuity'. Whether the result is a quick-and-dirty patchwork job or a carefully crafted work of art, you have to admire the cleverness that went into it."

We will continue to apply that spirit in the way we run the event itself in hopes that it creates the right environment for people to explore the art of the hack.

I can't wait to see how it continues to evolve from here -- I'm looking forward to seeing what our new friends in London will come up with!

Chad Dickerson