HackWeek 2018

Two weeks ago we ran the second edition of our internal HackWeek, and it was fantastic. Last year’s event was great fun and produced projects we still use; going into this year’s HackWeek we anticipated a leveling up, and weren’t disappointed. We figured we’d talk a little bit about the week, and discuss some of the “hacks”.

Our HackWeek parameters are simple: We downtools on all but the most essential work (primarily anything customer-facing) and instead scope and build something. The project absolutely does not have to be work-related, and people can work individually or in teams. The key deadline is a 10-minute demo on the Friday afternoon. The demos are in front of the rest of the team, and results count more than intentions.

Everyone participated and everyone presented at the Friday demo, including sales, dev, support, back office and yours truly. We strive to keep Thinkst a learning organisation and this HackWeek is one way that we do it. For example, it’s great to see a salesperson taking their first steps in writing Python, and our HackWeek helps make that happen. Here’s a roundup of a few of the notable submissions.

Portable Demo Kit
Bradley showed an early diversion into hardware hacking with his jury-rigged demo station. We often demo Canary over WebEx/GoToMeeting, and he decided to spend his HackWeek upgrading the current webcam setup.

He removed a camera from a non-functioning laptop, added some LED’s for lighting, attached both to a single USB cable, and then kept iterating on packaging until he had a tiny unit that hides in a pocket, but sets up for great overhead shots.
It appears to have cost his kids a few toy arrows, but was totally worth it! Wish him luck getting home-rolled electronics through airport security…

Az was up next and blew us away with his OSQuery-like hack to make our back-end infrastructure data more queryable in real-time. It’s pretty neat, SQLite lets you write plugins to incorporate underlying data sources which look nothing like relational tables. The upshot of this project is that we can run SQL queries which go out and fetch data from our customer consoles using SaltStack, and perform standard actions like filtering and joins.
I’m hoping we write a CanaryQL blog post of in good time. Projection Central Anna used the week to claim a piece of our downstairs office wall. She started by projecting a simple web page on the wall which showed off our customer tweets, and then gradually iterated the complexity upwards.
Step 2 displayed a cool animated clock, Step 3 showed bird deployments, and Step 4 integrated a websockets based chat system (allowing people in the office to send messages that would now display on the projector). This is perfect for kicking off long running jobs that notify people downstairs when done. Part of what made this awesome is the fact that Anna never touched Python before HackWeek! She summarised her win early on with a John Gall quote I love:

Kinect Resurrection
Jay swapped projects midstream, and eventually went for a hack related to the Kinect. This meant resurrecting and saving an old device before creating an office facial recognition based IDS.
A Better MouseTrap We have a janky internal system to test sample SD Cards comprising of a series of Raspberry Pi’s and a terrible-looking breadboard. Marco decided to replace the breadboard rat’s nest with a custom circuit board, built in the office. This meant turning the office into a meth-lab and a lot of fails.

Of course in true Marco fashion, he prevailed, in time and under budget:
Canary-War Nick and Max teamed up to build a Unity3d based game they called Canary-War. They designed the characters from scratch in Blender and then built the game mechanics for a multiplayer game in a week. Pretty awesome..
Grafana meets IoT Danielle decided that Grafana dashboards that merely displayed data from IoT devices were too limiting, and hacked a module using MQTT & WebSockets to get bi-directional comms going with her IoT device. Since Grafana is designed to be uni-directional, this took some finagling.
Instapaper for Video My project was purely to scratch my own itch. I wanted a way to tag video links during the day, and to then have them magically saved on my iPad for later viewing.

I ended up with a Rube Goldberg machine called savemyvid.net. Essentially this lets me send a video link to an email address, which is then parsed by an EC2 server which downloads the video and adds it to my personal podcast. My iPad then subscribes and auto-downloads episodes for that podcast so the videos are there even if I’m on a plane with no connectivity.
I’ve extended this to make the system multi-user, so I’ll blog about this one separately too.

It’s probably enough to say “a fun time was had by all” and end it there, because if we can’t have hacker fun, then what is this all for any way? But there’s always more. Post the presentations, we noted at least the following points on our internal Slack:
(Ed’s warning: cut & paste from internal slack)
  • Make sure we always give credit for stuff we use from other people. It breeds a type of academic honesty that’s important and clarifying, and gets us into the habit of more generally giving credit when it’s due.
  • We often talk about “being a learning org” and the HackWeek demos warmed my heart for it. Az said, “last time I missed the mark by doing A, so now I did B”. I also heavily changed from the last HackWeek. (Last year, I planned time for HackWeek and “work happened”, and I barely shipped. This time, work also happened, but I expected it, so I had cleared up personal time heavily and it gave me enough time to ship satisfactorily). Learning (from past mistakes) is what we do.
  • Why bother? Things like a HackWeek come and go and if you don’t stretch for it, there’s actually no perceptible difference to your life. In fact you quickly figure out that life is much easier if you don’t put yourself into stretch-needing situations. The reason for consciously doing it during an artificial one week sprint? Because you’re building those muscles; during a HackWeek, you’re not just building the new tech skills you bumped into, but also meta skills. Skills like knowing when to dive deep or when to walk, how to pick a date, commit and ship. It’s super trite, but ultimately, “we are what we repeatedly do”.

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