Giving Developers Time to Innovate

Perspectives on the digital video world from JW Player’s SVP of Technology

Last week was Hackweek here at JW Player. Every six months we put aside all non-critical engineering work for one week so that our engineers and technical staff can experiment with new ideas. In some cases, these projects are not even directly related to their everyday work.

Yes, you read that right—we dedicate five working days a year to writing code that we may never use in our products. Many other companies would consider this wasteful. Very far from it, as I will explain after a few words about what a JW Hackweek is not.

JW Hackweeks are not “20% Time.” I have worked at companies with 20% Time, and in my experience it wasn’t very productive. Not only was the term “20% Time” vague, but these projects were worked on sporadically, and not very collaborative. To be truly creative, engineers need to go deep into a problem, which they simply can’t do working on it a few hours here and there, or even one day a week.

JW Hackweeks are not hackathons. Team members self-organize around the ideas that interest them, but unlike hackathons, Hackweeks have a formal process for proposing hacks well in advance of Hackweek so that Day 1 is not a mad scramble. Also, hacking is done during regular business hours instead of an around-the-clock sprint like a hackathon (though teams are free to hack into the night if they choose).

JW Hackweeks are not mandatory, but almost everyone participates. This is because (in my experience) there is only one thing that engineers love more than building stuff, and that is building cooler stuff than their peers. As such, every Hackweek has a winning hack. The prize (beyond simple Glory) is an all-expenses-paid outing for the creators, plus a handsome commemorative plaque.

And there are plenty of hacks to choose from. Our June Hackweek planning resulted in over 80 proposals, with 20 ending up as projects that teams worked on.

Okay, so why isn’t all this a waste of precious development time and resources?

First, Hackweeks are important cultural events. They are one of the things that define JW Player’s engineering “personality” and make us unique.

Second, they facilitate team building in the truest sense. People interact, exchanging valuable skills, tips, context, company history and other information to which they are not exposed in their everyday work.

Third, they make it clear to employees that we take innovation seriously at JW. When we talk about innovation, we are putting our money where our mouth is, literally.

Lastly, Hackweeks are valuable because they do result in new products, features and infrastructure improvements. I won’t divulge any secrets, but previous Hackweek ideas have evolved directly into valuable product differentiators, while others have resulted in patent applications.

So, that’s JW Hackweeks in a nutshell. Thanks to all the JWers who participated. Now start getting ready for December!

Want to hack with us? We’re hiring—check out our openings!

 

John Luther is SVP of Technology at JW Player

 

 

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