Why Hacking Matters – A Primer

A recap of my panel at Web 2.0 Expo NY, which took place last week in midtown Manhattan.

In years past, I've participated in Web 2.0 Expo on behalf of YDN, as a sponsor, exhibitor, and attendee. This year I moderated a panel about the value of hack days for companies and organizations. In this post, I'd like to share some of the principles we discussed, and how I met the panelists — Akiva Bamberger, Chad Dickerson, Meghan Gill, and Tarikh Korula — because I think it's a great illustration of the organic power of hack days.

I've been at Yahoo! since it was a cathedral-like web directory powered by a village of web surfers. I worked on content and editorial for many years, before moving into a marketing role. I'm currently part of a small team that talks to developers. We tweet, post, and blog. We plan events. And we produces hack days, both internal — for Yahoo employees only, and external — for the global developer community.

If you read this blog, you already know what a hack day is: It's about writing code and showing it. A hack day is a gathering of people who come together to create software (or in some cases, hardware and software) that goes from concept to working prototype in a fixed period of time -- a day, a weekend, an overnight. The software is usually built on open source platforms with open APIs and development tools. It's typically a project that scratches a developer's itch, that's different than your day job, that takes risks, that's not something you do because someone else asks for it. Rules may be bent, warranties may be voided.

Eric Raymond, the canonical philosopher of hack writes:

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.

In preparing for this panel, I read Steven Levy's epic history: Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution. O'Reilly recently published a 25th anniversary edition. Levy describes the engineering DIY geek culture that emerged at MIT in the late 1950s and 1960s and does a wonderful job of articulating the hacker ethic. These principles are worth remembering, because they are core values for hack days too. Wikipedia summarizes:

  • Openness
  • Sharing
  • Decentralization
  • Free access to computers & tools
  • World improvement

Over the last 4-5 years, I've planned and participated in dozens of hack days. Internal hack days are a quarterly tradition at Yahoo!. A year ago, we came to NYC and produced Open Hack NYC, not many blocks from the site of Web 2.0 Expo.

But, my experience with hack days begins further back, about 5 years ago, when Chad Dickerson joined Yahoo, and with Caterina Fake and a small crew of engineers and volunteers produced Yahoo!'s first hack day in December 2005. It was followed almost a year later by the Woodstock of hack days, when Yahoo opened its doors as well as its APIs for an event that featured a live concert and puppet show by Beck on the corporate campus lawn. In 2008, Chad moved to Brooklyn to become the CTO of Etsy. Last year, he joined us as a judge at Open Hack NYC.

I met Tarikh Korula and his partner Josh Rooke-Ley of Uncommon Projects at that famous Open Hack event in 2006. Josh and Tarikh built a Ybox — a set-top box that fit in an altoids tin and displayed an RSS feed on a TV screen. It was a winning hack, and it led to some really interesting collaborations between Yahoo!, a public company and Uncommon Projects. In 2007, these two Brooklyn hackers turned their ybox into a custom kit that they workshopped at Maker Faire, and, in 2009, they designed a fleet of purple bikes that take photos as you ride, and automatically post them to Flickr. Most recently, they've released an iPhone app called Marco, that lets people find each other quickly and privately.

Last fall, at Open Hack NYC, I met some other folks, including Hilary Mason, bit.ly's data scientist. Hilary came for a panel and stayed to hack a cake. Hilary is also a computer science professor and she and some colleagues and students organized hackny.org last spring — a grassroots hack program for nyc college students — inspired by the energy and format of our event. HackNY did their sponsorship fundraising on Kickstarter!

YDN decided to jump in as a sponsor. We sent our hackmeister and ambassador of hack days Eric Wu. You can see the short video Eric made on the HackNY website. Akiva Bamberger, a student from Columbia University, got involved. Akiva is now a grad student. I met him for the first time this summer, during his internship at Google. (HackNY's fall hackathon is going on this weekend!)

Meghan Gill also came to hackNY. Hilary Mason introduced us online and we met for the first time 15 minutes before the panel began. Meghan manages marketing and community development for 10gen — a company that provides commercial support, training, and consulting for Mongo DB, an open source high performance, NoSQL database. In this role, she organizes and attends lots of grassroots developer events and that's how she found her way to hackNY.

These are just a few strands in a great web of relationships; examples of the creative cross-pollination that happens when organizations or grassroots groups support a culture of collaboration and hacking. I believe that hack days generate serendipity, along with fresh new product ideas, patents, and partnerships, and if you think I'm dreaming, step out and see for yourself.

Finally, a collection of links I pulled together on delicious, under the tag hackingmatters. With thanks to sleep-deprived, caffeinated hackers everywhere for the inspiration, shtick, and surprises.