:Ben Metcalfe Blog

Yahoo! Hack Day was off the hook

Perhaps the best way to sum up how great Yahoo! Hack Day was is to let you know that it kept me buzzing for 41hrs straight, non stop, no sleep* — thanks also to a ridiculous amounts of caffeine! Yes, I got up at 8am on Friday morning and I didn’t get to sleep until 1am on Sunday morning.

*Ok, I admit there was a period during the night when kept dozing off, my head hit the keyboard and I work up again. Ouch.

Yahoo Hack Day 06

But back to Yahoo! Hack Day – it pretty much set the bar for any future events like this. Chad, Bradley, Kent and the rest of the YDN team deserve a big ‘congratulations’ for all the work they did to bring this together.

Following on from my previous post on the Citizen Agency blog about developer networks, I’d like to jot down some key points noting what Yahoo did to get this community event so right. (Citizen Agency has a lot of experience of running community events like this, such as BarCamps, and we’re also in the process of organizing one for a client at the moment)

Good mix of people
Unlike most of these events, BarCamps included, this wasn’t first-come-first-served. Yahoo! asked people to apply for an invite , and then decided to send out tickets based on many factors (such as whether you were not a ‘regular’ to these kinds of events, how far away you lived, etc).

What they avoided was the same ‘Silicon Valley Set’ turning up – people who Yahoo! already knew and the community knew. Sure there were still a number of regulars, but there many more people I didn’t know – either personally or by reputation. It was great to meet people from across North America who had flown in for the event.

It was also great to see a good representation of Yahoo! people there supporting the event – especially as they were working overnight and on their weekend. Cal and Katerina (from Flickr), Rasmus Lerdorf (inventor of PHP and Yahoo! Infrastructure Architecture Engineer) and most of the YDN team. Even David Filo (co-founder of Yahoo!) spent most of the day at the event on Saturday and was keen to talk to attendees.

Not overly corporate
Sure this was a Yahoo! event, and no one would have any problems with them wanting people to use a Yahoo! API or resource as part of their hack. But the whole Yahoo! thing wasn’t forced down participants throats. That’s actually harder to get right then you might think. Invariably when you’re running an event with a large budget like this, and with mainstream media news coverage, there are big pressures within the company to maximize the brand opportunity. This is something both BBC and Reuters got terribly wrong when they ran the WeMedia conference earlier in the year.

Encouraged participation
My biggest fear was that people would turn up to the event and free-load by not actually building anything. Yahoo! did their best to incentivize participation by offering some cool prizes and the opportunity to get noticed on stage when you presented your hack. They also created an environment in which it was pretty obvious if you weren’t building anything, and I think you’d soon either get bored or found out.

That’s important because Yahoo could only accommodate a limited number of people, and so it needed to ensure that those who were given the opportunity didn’t squander it away whilst preventing someone else from taking that place instead.

Well organized
What can I say, the event was very well organized. It didn’t feel too ridged and structured – apart from the presentations, which had to be kept short as there were over 50 of them to be judged (more on that from Salim Ismail). But the rest of the time was very relaxed. When events run smoothly, like this one did, you know that there are lots going on behind the scene to achieve that. Food just ‘magically appeared’, the cafeteria suddenly was cleared of it’s tables and chairs, trash kept disappearing from the floors… People in the background were responsible for ensuring the event ran seamless.

Symbiotic
Hmmm, maybe I’m being a bit clinical by using the word symbiotic but the word sums up the dynamic of the event. It was beneficial to both Yahoo! and attendees. As I mentioned above, Yahoo! spent a fair bit of money organizing this and so I don’t think anyone would have a problem with them wanting to get something out of it. But equally it was a very useful event for the community – new relationships were made, people learnt a lot both from the Yahoo! sessions and also from each-other. On that front it was a perfect balance between the two.

I should point out that my hack, which enabled a Sharp multi-function photocopier printer to print out photos from Flickr via the web-service, won me a Sharp LCD TV. So I guess I’m extra happy about the event because I got to cross off one of the big-ticket purchases I’ve got to make for my new apartment! Sharp were a sponsor of the event.

And I haven’t even mentioned Beck yet. So here’s the thing – I really enjoyed Beck despite not really being a fan or knowing much of his music. I also know that for a lot of people it was a really big thing – I guess Beck is bigger here then he is in the UK. But to be honest, Beck wasn’t the highlight of the event. I enjoyed it regardless of the big-name star.

For me, it wasn’t important to have Beck at the event but having spoken to Yahoo! people about it I can tell they were keen to reinforce their new position as a media company in addition to a tech company (sounds like the BBC all over again, but in reverse). It also did bring in the media attention, which as I’ve noted above is an important factor when companies are putting on these events.

I really hope Yahoo! do another one of these in 6 months or so. There was talk about 12 months time, but I think that’s too far away and will loose some of the momentum. If finding/paying another ‘big name star’ is a barrier to that then maybe they should just drop that aspect? Like I said, it wasn’t a big deal for me personally.

I also think they should do the next Hack Day outside of Silicon Valley. Now that I’ve got here I’m so keen to try and push people to think beyond this crazy place between San Francisco and San Jose. Maybe London should be next?

(Sorry, this is a yet another matter-of-fact blog post which re-reading it could have been written far more interestingly and engagingly. Unfortunately I’m already running late with getting this out, and I have sooo many things I need to do as soon as I post this.)