Behind the scenes of SnapScan’s hack week
Kurt3 Feb, 2021
Software development is, inherently, an artistic pursuit.
Sure, most of your time will be spent following rigid processes to make your solutions work, but what about problems that can’t be solved that way? More often than not it takes a moment of inspiration (or a decade or more of learned patterns) to spark a solution.
Here’s the rub: it’s really difficult to switch out of rote mode because you’re often stressed, overworked, or simply aren’t challenged with interesting problems.
Our muse to cure this malaise? Hack week.
The engineering teams down tools (ensuring that business-as-usual continues, of course) for an entire week, and dedicate it instead to problems of their choosing. Where possible we get other teams to down tools and join in the fun too.
For a company as small and highly leveraged as SnapScan, it’s important to take regular breaks to allow everyone to pursue passion projects in the Fintech space, which are outside the scope of our regular roadmap. If your roadmap looks anything like ours you’ll be hard-pressed to find time to think critically about things outside your purview. Hack weeks are the perfect tool to allow everyone to take a step back (and take a breather) and attempt something that they normally wouldn’t get focused time to work on.
It’s also an important bridge between teams because it allows like-minded individuals to work more closely with each other outside of their day-to-day environment. We try to solve this problem, in general, by running project pods, which include stakeholders across the business, but sometimes that’s not enough. As your company grows it becomes difficult to get disparate teams to interact with each other regularly. These events are a great way to let people rediscover each other.
Having run a few of these events, here are some tips to get you started:
1. Plan ahead
It’s difficult to get time off for the entire engineering department. It’s impossible to get time off for most of your company. Pick a time of the year where things naturally slow down, and when most of your teams have some breathing room.
2. Use company time
No one should have to sacrifice their weekend or holiday to participate. Again, plan ahead and ensure that external parties are aware of unavailability of personnel.
3. Offer incentives
Getting time off to explore is a great incentive, but being offered, at least, nominal prizes adds an extra edge to the week. A little competition goes a long way to ensure neurons fire on all cylinders.
4. Demo day
It’s important that teams demo their projects to the rest of the company as this is a great way to engage in conversation. Some of it will be light-hearted banter, while the rest will, hopefully, be discussion about how best to drive the idea forward.
Of course, those tips assume that things mostly go smoothly. There’s always a ‘gotcha’ isn’t there? We’ve run into these snags before:
1. Not everyone participates
Too often people think that hack week is only for engineers. It’s important to change this narrative to encourage participation across the company. Projects always need testers, artists, designers (hint: you can do a lot without Photoshop) and thinkers.
2. How to dev without a dev?
That being said – most hack week projects do require some form of development. We’ve tried to get around this by preparing mini-tutorials and examples of no-code and low-code apps, and while we didn’t see much uptake of this there was enough interest that we’ll prepare more formal documentation and live tutorials to prepare non-engineers for the next event.
Once you’ve run your first hack week, how do you know it’s been successful? Honestly, it boils down to just two things:
1. Completed projects (over polish)
Teams often try to produce hack week projects that are on par with their day-to-day work. The key to hack week success lies in the name: hack. If you don’t have a complete project by the end of the week then you haven’t stuck to the brief.
Hack week isn’t just about productivity, it’s also about having fun and interacting with people you wouldn’t normally work with. Pre-COVID this meant communal drinks and snacks, impromptu demos, over-the-shoulder backseat drivers giving teams unsolicited advice, and in extreme cases, developers falling asleep on bean bags.
In the last two years we’ve seen several projects go from hack week madness to the roadmap or production. It’s safe to say that hack weeks have become part of SnapScan’s culture, and they’re here to stay.
So far it’s been a private affair, but who knows? Maybe you’ll see an invitation in your inbox this year to help us reimagine Fintech.
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