Every few months, the Zillow engineering team spends a week hacking. Projects range from cool product ideas, to improved tools, to anything else that improves our internal efficiency. There’s only one rule during Hack Week: You’re not allowed to work on your normal job.
With more than 100 people participating across our three tech offices in Seattle, San Francisco and Irvine, our June Hack Week had more than 50 projects! Some companies do hack days, or noon to midnight, but we’ve found that a full week gives us enough time to go deeper and be more ambitious with our projects. In the past, whole new business ideas have been hatched and prototyped. People usually work in small teams, and the best projects happen when people hook up with people from other teams outside their usual group.
A few days or so before Hack Week, we have a “pitch” party where (in addition to partaking of some fine microbrew and snacks), anyone can get up and pitch their idea. Others are encouraged to ask questions or join a team that interests them. Sometimes two people present a similar idea, and there is an opportunity for them to work together. There are no requirements for what people work on during Hack Week. Some might investigate new technologies they have been curious about. Others might build prototypes or production code in feature areas they find interesting. And some focus their attention on internal tools and process improvements to speed up our development process or ease some of the complexity that results from growing teams and code base. Some of our best hack projects have been ones that have improved developer productivity and operational efficiency of our production or test environments.
Hack Week starts on a Monday and runs for seven days, with final project presentations at the end. Of course, along the way we stir things up with fun activities, but mainly lots of food and drinks. Ezell’s Chicken and Thai Kitchen are some of our team’s favorites. Our fancy Starbucks machine runs overtime, and we keep everyone going with healthy snacks and fruit. One of the best parts of Hack Week is the way teams share what they are working on, solicit input and work together to build cool stuff. While we have incredibly smart and talented developers, designers, program managers, test engineers and operations engineers, they all realize that working collaboratively is the only way to ensure the best work is done. Hack Week is also an opportunity for people to step outside their typical roles. It is great to see program managers writing code and test engineers working on product designs.
At the end of the week, presentations are made to the entire team, and groups compete for votes from their colleagues. We also have a panel of judges, most recently consisting of Spencer Rascoff (CEO), Greg Schwartz (Chief Revenue Officer) and Chloe Harford (VP, Product Management & Strategy).
In addition to the panel’s choice, the product team votes on best product idea and best internal tool or process efficiency win. Past winners include new home search and map interface ideas, new mobile application features (like the hand drawn search regions) and improvements to our build system and server startup time. One project improved service start time by more than 70 percent, saving thousands of hours across all our engineers. Log analysis and monitoring tools and other operations related Hack Week projects have also been big wins, as we look to simplify the management and monitoring of all the services that make Zillow tick. For competitive reasons, we won’t share all the details of the Hack Week winners and other cool projects, but we will share more as we launch them into production.
If you would like to throw some ideas of features you would like to see, please email a description (or prototype!) to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will make sure to add them to the Hack Week idea bank on our internal engineering wiki. We may even invite you to come participate with us during our next Hack Week to help us build it!