Hack days, television, constraints and bodily functions

Skyscanner for Business's very own Developer Advocate, David Low, recently attended a hack day at STV, one of Scotland's largest TV channels. In his role, David looks after external developer relations, working to grow the evangelist developer community around Skyscanner and the Skyscanner API. David began with Skyscanner nearly three years ago managing the company’s mobile products, including implementing a Best Practice standard. Prior to his Skyscanner life, David managed digital production at RBS and led product development at STV. David has worked on high-scale web sites and mobile apps for more than 15 years and has a particular passion for making digital products work 'anywhere’.

In this piece, he reflects about his experiences of the day, and invites all budding hackers to get involved with our future events and products

We often refer to the Theory of Constraints at Skyscanner, and what you could do if you had no obstacles.  Identifying bottlenecks that block the path of progress, and create that happy path to successful, incremental, ongoing delivery.  

Whilst not exactly the same thing, we've long encouraged hack days as a way to get something done, or get it moving, with several of those constraints removed at one go. You can read up about hackathons the team have attended here.  Organise the right people, with or without a definite plan in mind; allocate the time and resource for a finite amount of time, and deliver as much as you physically can before the resource disappears.

Those constraints take different forms.  Many growing companies suffer badly from idea overload - people so engaged in products that they'd love to help make them better - but from their vantage point as an accountant, a receptionist or even a designer on a different project, the opportunity never presents itself.  And ongoing process means you have to wait a while for a product manager to make these ideas reality.

Even age has been touted as a constraint, but if you've witnessed the likes of Nick D'Alosio selling his app to Yahoo aged 17, or our very own TechCrunch Disript winner, Prisha Parashar aged 10, you can see that when constraints are removed and opportunity presents itself, good things often follow.  It's something that long bothered me and become the central theme of my TEDx talk at St Andrews University earlier this year, that opportunity has never been greater with those who can find the time.

With all of the above in mind, STV embarked on its first cross-company Hack Day in early December.  The company was given a chance to supply, and ultimately vote on, ideas that weren't on the company road map - but might be executed in the space of two days.  As a particularly creative company in the media space, supply of ideas was never going to be a constraint.

Once that was whittled down by popular vote to 10 ideas, nearly 60 staff from all over the company were allocated to mixed-experience teams and given 2 days away from the office at the landmark Fairfield Heritage Centre in Glasgow - itself a hive of ingenuity during the days when the Clyde was a world leader in shipbuilding.

And if that setting wasn't enough inspiration to get people hacking, I was privileged to be given a slot before everything started - to give a view of Skyscanner's growth over the years and how so many good ideas have come from all over the business, been the subject of hack days themselves, and how our Skyscanner for Business team heavily encourages this type of effort both internally and externally.

Having been part of STV's major digital digital expansion a few years ago and knowing plenty of the audience, I took some liberties with the presentation to set a light-hearted tone.  In particular my recent disovery that certain loud bodily functions made iTunes play a particular audio track - and how I'd be hacking my diet over Christmas to figure out how that happened.  I explained how much of STV's online growth came from hack days - which we used to refer to as "most nights and weekends".

With that particular gem serving to inspire them yet further, after a demo of our own hacked-together Alexa integration, the teams set off for the afternoon - with a staging-post presentation at the close of day 1 their first goal.  As with all hackathons, there was a hive of noise until organiser Steven Kelly said "Go!" - followed by deathly silence as the newly-assembled teams figured out what comes next.

It quickly became apparent, something reinforced by the first-stage pitches later - that patterns started to emerge around that idea of removing constraints.  Non-technical people, or those with a rather different day job, were full of enthusiasm and keen to make that first presentation, as if they'd been waiting for the chance all along.  Designers and developers relished the chance to bring an idea to life - without the (perfectly legitimate) constraints of Agile priorities.

Fuelled by coffee and sweets, the tradition hackathon tools, ideas ranged from advanced news gathering in the field, to a big effort exposing STV's vast archive of media - two ideas that were previously stalled by internal priorities and constraints themselves.  But they diverged as far as ways to aid the company's staff canteen and mobile-first ordering of sandwiches.

The winners were chosen by everyone voting with one post-it note each - but with all teams gaining the satisfaction of delivering something new, and learning a bit more about how different skill sets bring different approaches when the opportunity presents itself.  As with many internal hack days, the end result says as much about the company and its people as it does about the end products.

For the record though, the top two were "Reel of Fortune" - a way to increase engagement in the flagship STV Player product, and "iGather" - a way to send videos and images straight from reporters' pones to the STV content management system - and users.  However much the saying sounds cliched though, everyone was a winner on the day.

Alistair Brown, CTO of STV and central to the hack day plans, was delighted with the outcome.

The Fairfield Shipyard venue provided an inspirational backdrop for the Hack Day and I left the event at the end of the second day with a really strong sense of energy and enthusiasm from the ten teams that participated.

We had hoped that a key outcome for the event would be the breaking down of barriers between the Digital Development teams and the broader business and this was certainly the case. It was fantastic to see digital developers working collaboratively towards a common goal with sales, marketing and finance colleagues.

We have since had a follow up where the teams shared their technical builds in more detail and we ran an exercise where the participants shared what they personally shared what should be repeated and what we might do differently at the next event.
— Alistair Brown, CTO of STV

There will always be a small piece of me at STV - even if it's the thought of my bodily functions in someone's mind - so it was a pleasure to be part of this event - and spread the word that Skyscanner is both open for business, and keen to spread the gospel that everyone's a hacker, given the time and tools.

If you're interested in the complicated problems of travel and fancy a bit of hacking yourself using our world-class Travel Apis and travel products, you can start your journey here today.