Hack Days: What expectations do they set?

I love Hack Days.

I love them because of the anticipation, the spontaneity, the community and the creativity. They generate energy – if for a short time – around the issues they are organised to expose, and for a brief moment overcome the inertia that most people come to dread within large organisations – like Government.

I say ‘expose’ because in my experience of Hack Days often people come to ‘show off’ their skills, ‘show’ the organisations or sectors whom they are targeting ‘how to do things better’, and ‘show’ each other what they are capable of.

None of which is bad. But all of which worries me slightly.

While those coding and participating in the coding teams, at some level, understand that not all digital development projects are the same, not everyone who attends a Hack Day necessarily ‘gets’ it.

I think Hack Day participants break down into several categories. These include (but are not limited to):

  1. The organiser. These are the people who run the events. They are often bright, dedicated, and clever. They also often have an agenda. This agenda can include trying to show up the organisations or sectors at whom the Hack Days are targeted. This is fine, but is not always clear to the people on the street.
  2. The hacker. These people vary in age, are often male, are sometimes a bit disgruntled with the idea of ‘large agencies’, and almost always feel they can develop better than the organisations or sectors they are targeting for their Hack Day.
  3. The business constituent. In most cases, representatives from the organisations are in evidence to view the proceedings. They vary from the technical to Marketing and PR types who want to be present to understand the outcome of the event. Not all of them want to be here – they were sent to observe.
  4. The public. Individuals from the public range from the inexperienced, to the professional – they are all linked by some desire to come and view and see what this thing is all about. They do not always fully understand what is happening.
  5. The press. Many Hack Days get little to no coverage. Some Hack Days, particularly ones focussed on the Government, get more press coverage – the angle is usually ‘hackers outshine Government…’

My worry really centres on types 3 and 4 above. These are often the ones who come away incredibly inspired and often believe that if hackers can do it in a period of 1-5 days (depending on the length of the hack sessions), then why can’t their organisations do it?

I say this because in my experience, having run a successful digital product design agency, these prototypes – and that is often what the applications developed are – can give the false impression of fully developed, functioning and robust services.

They create a sort of illusion that feeds the myth ‘if it’s digital, it must be fast to develop’.

I worry that many inexperienced people who attend Hack Days may:

  1. Expect that ALL digital services can be built quickly, and cheaply
  2. Be ill equipped to differentiate between simple standalone development/enhancements and large-scale systems integration
  3. Perpetuate within their organisations a false sense of expectation
  4. Drive forward projects without understanding the needs of the organisation and the users
  5. Simply fail out of ignorance

These may seem like harsh things to say. And they are not exclusive to Hack Days. In my twenty-two years of participating in and running technical and digital projects I have seen these issues occur all too frequently to believe it is a limited phenomenon.

However, with respect to Hack Days, I hope that as these types of events progress and mature that they will find some balance between showing spontaneity and creativity, and informing those attending that there can be a vast difference between what they see and the digital service or product idea manifested in the real world.

It feels a bit too much like the pendulum has swung from projects taking many months to several years, to whacking something together and launching it.

As with most things, there is a happy medium that will ensure digital services and products are developed in a way that meet the needs of the organisation and users, and can also take advantage of technologies and methodologies that ensure we are not constantly building more or taking longer than we need.

In the interim, I do believe that Hack Days are an important and vital step in the transition we need to make from ALL technical and digital services needing to be large-scale infrastructure projects, to developing a more discerning view of building ‘just enough!’

I welcome your thoughts.

You can find my blog at www.brianhoadley.com.

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