How to Make a Hack Off Day a Success

July 28, 2010

At FreshBooks, our development team is given one day a month to Hack Off any part of the application they feel inspired to improve (sometimes focused on a specific program). The changes range from added features, back-end code cleanup to some things that are just zany and fun. It’s pretty much a win all around.

Recently, the FreshBooks design team decided to run a hack off for themselves to kick off a new program. There was a lot of success (with some changes you’ll see soon). Since it was first FreshBooks design team hack off ever, there was of course some learning. Especially around team dynamics.

1. Setting the stage

  • Focusing your hack off on a specific area can really kick-start a new development program. It also makes it easy for a team member to carry forward in the future.
  • If your hack off is focused around a specific program, make sure the whole team has a shared understanding of what the current situation is and allow everyone to share views.

2. A few rules go a long way

  • Come up with some basic ground rules at the beginning of the hack off that will help focus your team.  By having guidelines for work that is produced, it can really help people focus on concepts and content rather than form. In our case, we agreed on the art direction so the design team didn’t have to waste time thinking about it.

3. Collaborate or be competitive?

  • Figure out ahead of time if the hack off is going to be competitive or collaborative in nature (both can be good).  We found our team didn’t really do well as competing forces and the collaborate pieces were the shining stars of the day.
  • Brainstorm ideas as a team: what’s working, what isn’t working, or where the real pain is. Having tons of great ideas at the outset makes it much easier to get things accomplished during the hack off.
  • Ask the team to give their insight during the hack off.  It inspires others and can create more ideas in the end. You can also get valuable constructive criticism that will make your work even better.
  • If you have great development, support and marketing resources at your fingertips, use them! They will likely provide some great insights.
  • Have people join your table/pod/office so they feel more involved and can contribute more directly.

4.  Maximize and organize the day

  • Don’t do a half-day hack off as it’s not enough time.  Minimum should be 1 full day.
  • Don’t wait until 5pm on a Friday to try to show your results. People are busy and trying to leave for the weekend.
  • Co-ordinate the reveal at the outset with your leadership team so they can attend the final presentation with full attention.
  • Bring in lunch so you don’t waste time leaving the office for food.
  • Keep the time as uninterrupted as possible so people can focus on the hack off.

Bonus tip: Follow-up process for implementation of hack off concepts

  • Develop a concrete process for getting hack off ideas into the real world. You can spend so much time working on this stuff, but the ideas might lose steam after the hack off is over and will never get implemented.
  • Showing off your stuff at the end of the hack off is really fun… but the audience is on your side. There’s no time for people who were not participating in the hack off to give feedback that may improve your work. Allow some future time for critical feedback.

If you’re looking for the great way to improve your product, a hack off is always a solid idea. Just remember to set the stage, collaborate, gather feedback and maximize the time so you can get the most out of it. And make sure you have clear plan for moving forward the changes.

about the author

FreshBooks is the #1 accounting software in the cloud designed to make billing painless for small businesses and their teams. Today, over 10 million small businesses use FreshBooks to effortlessly send professional looking invoices, organize expenses and track their billable time.