I’ve been thinking a bit about geek conferences since “The Future of Web Apps” took place in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. Specifically, a couple of interesting conversational threads that it inspired.
The first was best summarised by Chris Messina in his piece “The Future of White Boy clubs” (executive summary: “far too many speakers and attendees at these things are white men; how do we change that?”).
The second cropped up in multiple conversations. For a lot of attendees FoWA was an odd conference, because they’d seen most of the speakers giving similar talks before, usually some time in the past 12 months. This isn’t a criticism of FoWA as such – what they built, very successfully, was a cheap, quick and engaging “Best Web Conference Speeches in the world… Ever!” album.
I personally found it very rewarding, but I’m a latecomer to the conference scene, and haven’t done the usual round of SXSW Interactive, Etech, OsCon, FooCamp/BarCamp, etcetera.
One conclusion you could draw from this is that a lot of ‘alpha geeks’ attend too many conferences; that there are only so many things to talk about. But conferences are hugely useful in providing ‘face time’ with creative people from all over the world, and every occasion provides opportunities for new connections and conversations. Maybe the problem isn’t the number of conferences, but the fact that they’re all focussed around listening to clever people talk about… stuff.
There might be a solution to all this, though, and I think I saw it pioneered this weekend on the main Yahoo! campus.
“Hack Day” has been around internally at Yahoo! for a little while now, and is a brilliantly simple idea – persuade as many people as possible to take a single 24-hour period out of their normal working time to take an idea from concept to prototype. I’ve heard the concept compared (often unfavourably) to Google’s famed “20 percent rule” (take this digg thread, for example), but that really misses the point. Hack Day isn’t about building the next Gmail, or an entire social network system. It’s about thinking small, extensible and useful – a single product feature, plugin or simple service which doesn’t yet exist. And, importantly, it’s about focus.
All the truly brilliant geeks I know are (in accordance with Larry Wall’s famous saying) lazy, impatient and hubristic. It can take a hard deadline or a truly transformative project to get the very best out of us. Hack Day (unlike Google’s 20%) provides exactly that deadline, and it provides a challenge to hubris – “I can build an entire complicated Frobicator in less than a day”.
Hack Day has led to all sorts of interesting avenues of enquiry and feature additions which are now parts of Yahoo! products. These are often the kind of thing which leap out of one person’s particular idea; they wouldn’t necessarily make it through a project review process and into a high-level “roadmap”, but they’re still useful and cool. To my mind, the only possible weakness of Hack Days is that sometimes they seem a little shoe-gazy, a little inward-focussed on “Yahoo! stuff”.
Cue Open Hack Day, the same concept opened up to outside developers. There was one caveat – projects were supposed to use at least one Yahoo!-driven API or service, but with so many to choose from these days, that wasn’t a highly limiting constraint.
There was a mini conference of sorts on Friday – plenty of talks on how to use Yahoo!’s APIs and UI Library, as well as more general talks like Andy Baio‘s highly entertaining exploration of the ways in which online communities spawn offline meetings or gratherings. There was also (as you may have heard) an evening concert by Beck – a huge coup by any standards, and one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.
But honestly, the Beck concert was not the highlight of Hack Day. That came once the actual hacking was underway. It was simply amazing to see so many groups busy working away on their various ideas, occasionally asking each other for help, tables drowning in seas of Red Bull cans. I particularly enjoyed wandering the hallways at 3am, coming across a team making their “blogging in motion” bag with a sewing machine and soldering iron.
And I had ridiculous fun working on my own hack with Mattb, a superhero of a man who somehow managed to stay awake for 30 hours straight (personally, I had to collapse at about 4:30am and catch a few hours’ sleep), and Kelsey on design duty.
It’s the first time in ages that I’ve so concentratedly sat down with an abstract idea and just churned away at it manically, trying to get a working prototype in place as soon as possible. The good feeling was helped by the way in which news of everyone’s hack efforts filtered around the building. We must have had 5 or 6 groups drop by, interested in seeing a live demo of our system because they’d heard about it from other people, and I know that I told everyone I saw about the awesome hacks I’d stumbled across.
So what does this have to do with the future of geek conferences? Well, the “doing stuff” focus of Hack Day made for a fundamentally different, and ultimately more rewarding experience. Traditional “speaker track” conferences are, for most attendees, more of a consumptory than a participatory event. At Hack Day, in contrast, most people left with a feeling of having created something. They learned stuff, talked about stuff, socialised, made new contacts, and listened to Beck. But they also had something concrete at the end of it – something they could point to and say “I made that, overnight, in Yahoo!’s staff canteen.”
This, then, is one possible way to democratise the conference experience – to turn everyone into more of a participant. And I do mean everyone – even if you’re not a wizard with code there are countless ways to participate in a hack. You might have design skills which you can contribute. You might be invaluable in offering ideas for execution. You might be able to hack together a quick marketing blurb for the project. Or you might simply be able to offer your services as “beta tester”, helping to make things better.
Yes, it’s true that a majority of the Hack Day participants were still white and male. But there was a much better mix than at FoWA, and the “barrier to entry” of participation was way lower. The most entertaining Hack presentation was given by an Indian; the overall “best hack” prize won by a team of women. Technology as a whole still has challenges to overcome in encouraging equality, but for sure, encouraging a “hack culture” is not going to set it back any.
Software engineers are incredibly lucky in that this kind of thing is possible in our industry. You couldn’t run an inpromptu drug trial at a Pharmaceutical conference, or bus in a load of kids and subject them to experimental lessons at a Teachers’ conference. But we can hack – and many of our most successful ideas (including Flickr, del.icio.us, upcoming.org and Yahoo! itself) essentially started out as hacks.
Hack Day went off brilliantly for all involved, and I’m happy and proud to have been a part of it. But let’s learn from it, and keep getting people involved. Clear off a couple of days’ worth of familiar talks from your conference schedules and get everyone together to Just Build Stuff. Let’s have an eTech where technology actually emerges, a SXSW which is “interactive” in a much deeper sense, a Foo Camp where people spend their time manipulating the contents of $foo…
Hack Day was an enormous, scary experiment by the YDN team – no-one really knew how it would go down, but they took the gamble anyway. I don’t think anyone expected it to turn out as awesome as it was. Chad, Caterina and the rest of the (hundred-plus) team who worked on it proved the concept irrefutably. Now it’s up to everyone else to build on that beginning.