Eric Schrock's Blog

Enterprise Software Hackathons

February 28, 2013

At Delphix, we just concluded one of our recurring Engineering Kickoff events where we get everyone together for a few days of collaboration, discussion, idea sharing, and fun. In this case it included, for the first time, an all-day hackathon event. To be honest, it was a bit of an experiment and one where we were unsure of how it would be received. We had all read about, participated in, or hear praise of, hackathons at other companies, but these companies were always more consumer-focused or had technologies that were more easily assembled into different creations. As an enterprise software company, we were concerned that even the simplest projects would be too complex to turn around over the course of a day. Given the potential benefit, however, it was clearly something we wanted to experiment with – any failure would also be a learning opportunity.

Some companies go big or go home when it comes to hackathons – week long activities, physical hacks, etc. We wanted to preserve freedom but be a little more targeted. The directive was simple: spend a day doing something unrelated to your normal day job that in some way connects to the business. People volunteered ideas and mentorship ahead of time so that even the newest engineers could meaningfully participate. The result was a resounding success. Whether people were able to give a demo, sketch on a whiteboard, or just speak to their ideas and the challenges they faced, everyone pushed themselves in new directions and walked away having learned something through the experience.

The set of activities covered a wide swath of engineering, including:

  • Using D3.js for visualizing analytics data
  • “zero copy” iSCSI in illumos
  • web portal for customer data analysis
  • “zpool dump” to store pool metadata for offline zdb(1M) use
  • Real time engineering dashboard to aggregate commits, bugs, reviews, and more
  • “D++” DTrace syntactic sugar: function elapsed time, unrolled while loops, callers array
  • Mobile application to monitor Delphix alerts and faults
  • Global symbol tab completion for MDB
  • Network performance tool
  • Speeding up unit tests
  • Browser usage analytics
  • ‘zfs send’ to a POSIX filesystem
  • BTrace++ (a.k.a. CATrace) to make java tracing safe and easy
  • New V2P (virtual to physical) mechanisms in Delphix
  • Tools to more easily deploy changes to VMs

For myself, I put together a prototype of a hosted SSH/HTTP proxy for use by our support organization. This was my first real foray into the world of true PaaS cloud software – running node.js, redis, and cloudAMQP in a heroku instance, and it’s been incredibly interesting to finally play with all these tools I’ve read about but never had a reason to use. I will post details (and hopefully code) once I get it into slightly better shape.

Only a fraction of these are really what I would consider a contribution to the product itself, which is where our initial trepidation around a hackathon went awry. No matter how complex your product or how high the barriers to entry , engineers will find a way to build cool things and try out new ideas in a hackathon setting. Everything that people did, from learning how to make changes to our OS to improving our quality of life as engineers to testing new product ideas, will provide real value to the engineering organization. On top of that, it was incredibly fun and a great way to get everyone working together in different ways.

It’s something we’ll certainly look at doing again, and I’d recommend that every company, organization, or group, find some way to get engineers together with the express purpose of working on ideas not directly related to their regular work. You’ll end up with some cool ideas and prototypes, and everyone will learn new things while having fun doing it.

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