Yahoo Invites Outsiders to Hack Day

If coding for 24 hours in a tent is your idea of a killer weekend, Yahoo has an event for you. This Friday (Sept 29), the Sunnyvale, CA-based portal-media-platform company is sponsoring another Yahoo Hack Day.

This is the seventh or eighth time in the past year the company has stopped its regular workday to allow its employees to hunker down on their own pet projects and work them up into prototypes on company time. But those were strictly internal affairs. This time, the whole world is invited.

The hack day concept was reportedly introduced last year by JotSpot, the application wiki, and Yahoo has been running with it ever since. Until now, the Yahoo Hack Day events have served as a combination instant R&D mechanism, morale booster, and creativity stimulator for Yahoo employees. Inviting outsiders to 'hack the company' shifts the focus a bit—but only a bit, says Bradley Horowitz, Yahoo's head of product strategy.

''We aren't the only smart people in the world,'' Horowitz says. ''Inviting the rest of the world in to leverage the decades-long investment we've built up in terms of platforms, audiences, and all the assets we bring as Yahoo, and opening that to the creative energies of others really just extends the basic mission of my group.''

Yahoo expects about 500 people to show up on Friday and set up camp on its oh-so-green lawn (which explains a post-it I saw at Friday's Hacker's Lunch for reporters. It read, ''Turn off sprinklers on Wed.'') The company is gearing up for the event with stockpiles of refreshments, T-shirts, secret knock-your-socks-off entertainment, and lots of Porta-Potties.

A former student at Mass Institute of Technology, where he earned his Ph.D., Horowitz was a part of the local hacker culture, and he sees no pejorative connotations in the way Yahoo is using the term. In fact, he says that it was carefully chosen for the event.

''It certainly wasn't a bad thing at MIT,'' he said. ''A hacker was someone who got it, and was devoted to the art and science of writing code and making beautiful things with that code.''

Horowitz is a former punk rocker—well, post-punk; he played in the Detroit-based ''Spawn Ranch''—and he sees a kind of ''shut up and do it'' punk ethic at work in this event. The official Yahoo Hack Day credo is ''Mash up or shut up.'' 

The value of the event might not be easily quantifiable in terms of the products or solutions that have emerged from it. But it's still a good thing for the company, Horowitz says.

''It's more, like an improvisational jam session among band members,'' he says. ''Those sessions don't necessarily yield many songs, but they make you better musicians.''

Excuse me? Isn't this the post boom era? Isn't everyone supposed to focus on business technology optimization? Haven't the geeks been whipped into line, re-educated into thinking of their roles strictly in terms of the company's business objectives? Aren't we requiring IT to demonstrate its business value!  Didn't I say no more science experiments!?

Yahoo, apparently, moves to the beat of a different drummer, and the guy's tongue is pierced.

I asked Horowitz these questions, and he assured me that even the C-level execs—even Yahoo CFO Susan Decker, the hard-charging former financial analyst credited with getting Yahoo into the search biz—sees the value of the Hack Days.

''She's our biggest supporter,'' he said. ''All the execs really believe that this is good business. In order to be competitive and innovative in today's marketplace, we need to create a culture where the kind of people who can bring those things to the company are celebrated. We're not doing this as a community service, and we're not doing this as a stunt. We're doing it because we believe it's essential to the future of Yahoo.''

''Developers are going to fool around anyway,'' added Chad Dickerson, director of the Yahoo Developer Network. ''You can have a CIO dashboard, and you can set priorities, and you can optimize and optimize and optimize. But that's not going to stop your engineers from fooling around. Your very best engineers can't help themselves. We want to recognize that, help direct it, and even encourage it.''

Cool.

The list of Yahoo Hack Day events includes a free developer workshop on Friday with Yahoo engineers, and plenty of access to the Yahoo User Interface guys. The schedule also lists speaker presentations from Rasmus Lerdorf, creator of PHP; Douglas Crockford, inventor of JSON; Andy Baio and Gordon Luk, co-founders of Upcoming.org; Cal Henderson, Engineering manager for Flickr; Matt Sweeney, author of the YUI Library's Animation Utility and Dom Collection; and a keynote by Horowitz.

The hack submission deadline is 2:30 p.m. on Saturday. The hack demoes run from 3-6, and the judging runs from 6-7. Awards, a barbecue, and the mystery entertainment. If you're interested in this event, be sure to visit the official Hackday homepage on the Yahoo Developer site. You'll also want to check out the Yahoo User Interface Blog, TechCrunch (TechCrunch blogger Michael Arrington is a co-sponsor of the event), Horowitz's blog, and Chad Dickerson's blog .

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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