Hack Week #4: Hack Week How-To

by Carina Kuhr - 17 Dec 2015

Five days, 100 projects, 900 participants: Hack Week #4 is our biggest and most international edition yet! I asked two members of our organizing committee (aka “the Orga Crew”) — Ellen Nagel (Manager Executive Projects and Culture) and Bastian Gerhard (Head of Innovation & Enablement) how to throw a successful Hack Week of this scope and size. If you’ve ever thought about organizing your own similar event, read on.


Carina: How many Hack Weeks have you organized?
Ellen: This is #4 for Bastian and me.

Carina: Where did the idea originally come from?
Ellen: In 2013, we wanted to create a fun event that would drive innovation and improve company culture. We saw what Dropbox and other companies were doing, got inspired, and decided to give it a try. Luckily, our SVP of Technology Philipp Erler was a big fan of this idea.
Bastian: We wanted to pull our technologists out of their comfort zones and see what they were passionate about —see if that passion would lead to some undiscovered, cool ideas. Keep in mind that in 2013, Zalando was moving very quickly. Hack Week required letting 360 engineers work on something besides their usual work for a whole week. The risk of doing that was high.

Carina: Was it difficult to convince the Management Board of Hack Week’s potential value?
Ellen: Not at all, because Philipp pushed the idea. The management board’s support was the biggest gift. With HW #1, it was a bit unclear what our exact expectations were — not only from top management, but from everybody. What would happen with all the projects afterwards? How much guidance would the teams need? Was it worth it to pull 360 employees out of their daily work for an entire week? It was an incredible investment. But we got all the support we needed.
Bastian: There were certain things where we didn’t get budget for; looking back, this was advantageous. Initially we thought, for example, that we’d need external coaches for the project teams. In the end, the teams were completely autonomous and capable. We would have never found this out if we had hired externals.

Carina: Zalando remains a startup at heart, which sometimes requires making big things happen on short notice and small budgets. Does this present a challenge?
Ellen: Sure, but in the end it has many positive side effects. It forces us to be creative.
Bastian: Often you just need to transfer ownership, distribute the work. Colleagues organize their own side events, the organizing crew builds the awards instead of buying trophies, top management makes the intro videos and serves snacks. It helps us to stay a bit humble.

Carina: For HW #1, how did you tackle organization and figure out what you needed to do?
Ellen: We broke it down into smaller building blocks and leveraged the knowledge we’d gained from either setting up or attending hackathons and other tech events. We asked ourselves, “which of these building blocks do we need to make Hack Week a success?” One was branding: We needed some video production, a cool logo design, awards.
Bastian: In the typical, “data-driven” Zalando manner, we also thought about KPIs: What would be the output — number of projects, return on investment — and outcome? How many Twitter followers would we gain? For HW #1, we created a business case with a huge document full of concepts. By HW #2, we realized this wasn’t necessary and focused more on the content. But I think that huge document was necessary for us to define scope.
Ellen: We experimented a lot. With everything.
Bastian: Oh yes. And it was really chaotic, and we needed to improvise a lot.

Carina: How does the HW committee work together?
Ellen: For HW #1 we were only four or five people, and we didn’t have roles. It made things a bit chaotic. Now the committee includes 20 people who focus on autonomous work streams. Every workstream starts with a simple project charter created by the respective team members, who collaborate on identifying their goals and purpose and aligning on requirements, scope and deliverables. There are many interdependencies between the work streams, so they have to constantly communicate and make sure that they are on the same page. But we’re there to give them a safety net and guidance. (The HW#4 team is doing a fabulous job — big thanks to all of them!)
Bastian: We encourage the Orga Crew to come up with their own ideas. We don’t dictate anything, or even give them budget estimations. We want them to think big, not focus on budget. We often find that we need to realize their ideas with a quarter of the budget though.
Ellen: Our teams don’t let budget restrictions stop them — they find creative solutions to make their projects possible. That is what Zalando Tech culture is about.

Carina: HW seems like a lot of work. Do you organize it on top of your daily duties?
Ellen: HW is part of our job, so it’s our daily work already. This year our Crew included several newbies, so I think it felt a bit overwhelming for them at times. But if you identify with the project and want to achieve something great and big, it’s an amazing opportunity. The team really loved preparing and wanted to make everything perfect. That's why they stayed till late last Friday, decorating the office.
Bastian: I totally agree. This project lives and dies with the passion of the employees.

Carina: It’s mid-December. When did you start preparing?
Bastian: At the beginning of Q4.
Ellen: Yes, around October. We need 2.5 to three months lead time. We have bi-monthly alignment meetings and the workstreams start working in parallel.

Carina: What is the first thing you need to decide?
Ellen: The motto, because a lot of things evolve from that — especially decorations and side events.
Bastian: The motto unifies the whole event and gives it a stronger identity; it makes it more memorable. It sticks, during and afterwards. And with a motto, every Hack Week feels new.
Ellen: A motto is a good framework for branding not only the event itself, but also for the teams — they love to refer to it in their project presentations. What I really love is to walk around our office and seeing all these artifacts of past Hack Weeks everywhere.

Why should companies conduct Hack Weeks?
Ellen: From a cultural perspective, it’ll strengthen your employees’ identification with your company and its brand. Giving your teams five days and the necessary tools to work on a project that’s really fun for them is a big compliment to them — it’s a tremendous show of appreciation. Additionally, it gives your employees a great opportunity to network outside of their own teams. And your office space becomes really personal: Traces of every HW remain, and teams really love that. No interior designer in the whole world could build such a personalized team space.
Bastian: It creates a strong team spirit. I mean, last year one team launched a shoe into space — that’s something they will tell their grandchildren. People can experiment, try out the newest technologies, and by the end of the week they have achieved something through teamwork; I think this is the biggest benefit. Another reason is that Hack Week is a good source of bottom-up innovation.
Ellen: After HW #1, we were surprised by how many projects had a real business case or true customer focus. We never told the teams that a project needed to offer business value for Zalando, or that it had to solve a customer problem, but in the end this was often the case. I think it’s important to not reject any project idea — just let the teams work on whatever they want. We actually only rejected a project once: because the team wanted to build a swimming pool in our Sky Lounge!

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