Thursday, July 16, 2015

Polyvore’s Summer 2015 Hackathon: An Inside Look at Polyvore’s Hack Culture

By Dan Cox, Head of Engineering at Polyvore

Twice a year, we have week-long hackathons at Polyvore, with a few single-day, mini-hackathons thrown in. Why so many? We have a terrific team, and we want to give them the opportunity to direct the future of Polyvore.

Recently, we completed our summer hackathon, and it rocked! Coming out of that experience, I wanted to share a few tips on how to build an awesome hack culture.

Embracing and Celebrating Failures 
We have two simple hackathon rules: 1) develop something (somewhat) related to Polyvore, and 2) failure is totally okay as long as you learn something from that failure.

There is a difference between failing and trying. Trying means you might not push your effort to completion; you're not fully committed. Failure means you saw the end (and maybe it wasn't pretty), but that's alright because the journey is worthwhile.

Polyvore embraces a culture where we celebrate failures, and turn them into learnings we apply towards the future. A hackathon is a terrific way to help get engineers aligned with this idea because there is less immediate risk. Want to fully redesign our entire desktop? Terrific, hack away! The team understands that what you are delivering is an iteration on an idea, not the final product.

Empowering Our Eng Team
Software engineers tend to be creative and inquisitive people. Many engineers will tell you the reason they got into software had to do with “wanting to see how this works” or “automating away my work”. The types of problems we face as software engineers provide us with an engaging and challenging way to apply our creativity and inquisitiveness to real world problems needing creative solutions. For those of us lucky enough to be paid to write software, it is a match made in heaven.

Even with the opportunity to work on challenging puzzles and debugging issues, engineers need to express their creativity along paths that may or may not have a direct business impact, or may go against the architecture or technology choices of the company where they work. To encourage that kind of creative thinking, we give special awards to stand-out hacks, such as most immediately impactful, most creative, audience favorite and most needle-moving potential.

Everyone Hacks, Not Just Engineers
One of the unique aspects of our hack culture is that we encourage everyone across our three offices and dozens of teams to come together to work on an idea. In the week before the hackathon, we started a Slack channel, #hackathon, to get everyone chatting about potential ideas. Immediately team members from engineering, product, design, marketing, communications, sales and senior management (including our CEO and COO) started submitting ideas and collaborating.

A hackathon is a great opportunity for people that normally don’t work together to collaborate to create a great UX. This year Jess Lee, Polyvore CEO and co-founder, and I both worked on multiple projects. Although our day jobs don’t usually revolve around coding, it was great getting our hands dirty again and contributing code. I won the coveted “Keep Your Day Job” award, which meant “great idea, but horrible code”.

[Yue Wu, software engineer, Jess Lee, co-founder and CEO, Jianing Hu, co-founder] 

Hackathon Results: 
At our recent hackathon, we had 40 people (most working in teams of 2-4 people) contribute 32 ideas. Of those ideas, 5 were shipped within the first 2 weeks, and a total of 19 are currently being developed into user-facing features. 

It was an awesome week, and we’re excited to continue pushing hackathon ideas to production over the next few months. Thanks to everyone that submitted ideas! Can’t wait to see what our next hackathon has in store!