Hackomotive is Not Your Daddy’s Hackathon

After running internal hackathons at Edmunds.com for the past four years, I got to run my very first public hackathon at the company last week: Hackomotive: Reinventing the Car Shopping Experience. Our goal was to reinvent the car shopping process to make consumers love buying cars the way they do an iPhone or an item off of Amazon: simple, pleasurable and easy.

Hackomotive wasn’t going to be your typical hackathon where the participants needed to build a software prototype in order to win. This was going to be a business focused hackathon where prototypes of any kind, software or otherwise, were permissible as long as they told the story behind the proposed solution.

It was also going to be an Edmunds-sponsored hackathon. Translation: it’s going to be first class. This wasn’t going to be your daddy’s typical hackathon. This was going to be an event.

And it was 🙂

The idea for Hackomotive was born on June 11, 2012, after I got back from frog’s Reinvent Business Hackathon in San Francisco. I was so inspired by that event that I suggested to the Chairman of Edmunds.com, Peter Steinlauf, that we hold a similar event at Edmunds but narrow the scope to the car shopping experience and open it up to the public.

He loved the idea. Six months later, Hackomotive happened:

Thursday, Dec 20th – Hackomotive Announced!
Tuesday, Feb 26th – Evening Reception
Wednesday, Feb 27th – Day1
Thursday, Feb 28th – Day2

The event was a big success with folks already asking about when the next one will take place. I was humbled by the passion, commitment and positive spirit everyone brought to the event. There was a buzz in the air, and on the last day, the event crescendoed into a very high note when two teams, Tegrity and MyMotive, were crowned top winners and walking away with $10K each.

Needless to say, the event didn’t just happen.

It was the result of months of long and thorough planning by the following core team members that have grown to be my family at work during the past six months:

And Phillip Potloff, the senior executive who made sure we got what we needed to make it all happen.

The event literally wouldn’t have turned out the way it did had it not been for the dedication and thoughtfulness of the aforementioned talents. There was never any drama or unhealthy stress going on throughout both the planning and execution phases of the event. I learned so much about event planning from each and every one of them. I can’t wait for us to work together on something else very soon because I know it will be, dare I say, perfect.

Lesson learned: Want to put on a stellar event? Start with the core team. (thank you, Phil.)

Car shopping is an experience that affects us all and solving it is in our collective best interest. Everyone was welcome, as long as they were excited to join us and passionate about re-imagining the car shopping experience. As a result, we ended up with an incredibly diverse group of people for whom many this was their very first hackathon. Ever.

I’m not even going to cover the details of Hackomotive in this post because someone has already done that better than I ever could.

Matthew May, Hackomotive’s master of ceremonies, wrote a three-part article on the event starting with the evening reception and going into the first day where teams were formed and problem statements declared, and finally ending with coverage of the last day where judges deliberated and the winners were announced.

To stay abreast of everything that happens next, follow us on Twitter: @Hackomotive

Hackomotive for me was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my professional career. My hope is that it inspires other hackathons the way frog’s inspired it. Finding solutions that work for issues that matter is best done when a diverse group of creative minds physically converge on a single location to innovate for a very short, but intense, amount of time. I would love to see the same event happen in industries that haven’t been disrupted yet, like Travel, Housing, Government, and Finance. If you run one, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.

Here’s to the next hackathon that inspires us all!

The Secret to Success, According to Conan

“I think one of the reasons Saturday Night Live has been so successful is that it’s almost brutally unsentimental about its past.” – Conan O’Brien.

I wish people, companies and countries heed that advice.

We spend too much energy clinging on to our past selves and accomplishments that we don’t move forward. To be successful in life (and work), you need to MOVE ON. Excellent advice.

Entitled Much? The Yahoo! Memo That Irked America’s Tech Community

Marissa Meyer, Yahoo!’s CEO, stunned her company’s 11,500 employees when she sent out a memo on Friday that read in part:

Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Here’s the entire memo. Make sure you read the comments.

The response to the memo so far has been mostly negative. How dare Yahoo! reverse its policy, some cried. Others wondered if Meyer thought this was the 1980s. Some were just downright obnoxious, calling the memo a desperate move by a dying company.

I don’t work at Yahoo! and I couldn’t care less about their internal affairs. I’m also not here to rag on remote workers.

What bugs me is the temerity of the tech community in criticizing a company without knowing anything about the reasons behind its decision to revoke a popular policy. There’s a sense of entitlement that has permeated the tech world over the past 12 years and this exercise in acrimony is a testament to that very sad state of affairs. This is what this post is about.

“Everything is Amazing Right Now and Nobody’s Happy” – Louis C.K.

This unfolding showdown at Yahoo! reminds me of Louis C.K.’s bit on how this generation is spoiled and easily irked by the most inconsequential of things, even though we live in the most amazing time in history. In this particular case, the fact that Yahoos complain about going into work like it’s such a terrible inconvenience illustrates Louis’s point very clearly.

Speaking of entitlement, I interviewed a guy once, fresh out of college, who expected to get paid six figures on day one because, well, he went to Stanford. He didn’t understand the concept of “paying your dues”. I asked him, “do you even want this job?” He replied, “yeah sure, why not.” He was 22 (I think). He didn’t get the job.

But I digress.

“This aggression will not stand, man” – The Dude

Remember when Mr. Lebowski asked the Dude if he was employed?

The same surprise seems to have hit the tech world’s El Duderinos when they heard about the memo. Unlike the Dude’s, their response wasn’t nearly as funny.

Shouldn’t people be happy they’re employed at one of the world’s top companies? Do people actually think it’s easy for companies to reverse a popular policy without having a strong reason for doing so?

Working Remotely Works (for the most part)

I get how the remote-working environment works for some folks and how cost-effective it is for companies. I get it. But Yahoo! is not just any company. It’s an innovative company that’s in revival mode trying to compete in an extremely cutthroat environment.

Working remotely is great when your tasks are clear and ready for execution. It’s great for call centers according to a recent Stanford University experiment:

Home working led to a 13% performance increase, of which about 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick-days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter working environment).

The experiment was conducted (PDF) on call center employees at a Chinese travel company.

So it works. But does it work when the company is in the business of generating new products and innovations? I wonder if Apple has a work-from-home policy for its designers and engineers? Does Facebook? How about Google? I honestly don’t know. I would love to get some data on that.

Face-to-Face Time and Innovation

There’s a reason companies like Facebook, Google and Apple spend millions of dollars on their campuses. From gyms, restaurants, soft-serve machines to daycare and tennis courts. These campuses are built like colleges. They’re meant for people to live and work there. This kind of environment maximizes the face-to-face time people get to spend on the job. Whether the time is planned (i.e. meetings) or organic (i.e. chance hallway encounters, last-minute lunches, impromptu brainstorming sessions, beer after work, …etc)

Great ideas happen when creative minds bounce ideas around by the water cooler or the espresso machine. They happen when the team is close and conversations flow without the awkward energy induced by unfamiliarity.

These conditions do not exist in a remote-working environment. Innovation doesn’t happen remotely. Steven Johnson talks about the Adjacent Possible and Liquid Networks in his book, “Where Great Ideas Come From“. Both concepts require the physical presence of creative people in order to work.

Remote workers might have a great work/life balance and the company that employs them might be saving money in the process. But at what cost? There might be no negative cost incurred if the company is in the business of executing tasks. Law firms, accounting firms, call centers and newspapers might find it a godsend. They cut cost dramatically and their employees are freer. It’s a win-win situation.

But when you want to innovate (I mean, seriously wanting to innovate), you need your talents to be present to feed on each others ideas, passion and enthusiasm. You need that energy around the office. It’s good for teams and their morale and it’s crucial for innovation.

Parting Thoughts

I’m sure Marissa Meyer had a good reason for revoking the beloved perk to which everyone feels entitled. Instead of revolting, this is the time for the El Duderinos to abide. If the captain of the ship decides that she needs all hands on deck in order to save the ship, it’s your duty to comply. Don’t feel like it? Leave.

Seven Practical Themes From The Lean Startup Conference

Earlier this week, I attended my very first Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco. I was invited to sit on a panel discussion of the lean startup practices in the enterprise by the good folks at Neo (thanks, Josh.) I spoke about my my experience at Edmunds.com and both the blessings and challenges that go with applying the lean startup principles in the context of a mature business.

Throughout the conference, many inspiring speakers told stories of successes and failures; dos and don’ts. There was a lot to take in (kudos to the event organizers for packing an impressive lineup! Seriously, my brain is still swollen from the data intake!)

After a few days of processing everything I heard, the seemingly disparate concepts started coalescing in my head into themes of lessons learned or best practices or whatever you want to call it. These are beacons derived from real-life experiences to help guide us maximize our chances for success and avoid unnecessary failures.

I distilled them down to seven main themes that every entrepreneur or change agent should live by. Here they are in no particular order:

Just Do It

Lean innovation and disruption is based in action. If you don’t do, then what the hell are you doing? We live in an incredible time where creating high fidelity software is easier than ever. With tools like Heroku, Twitter Bootstrap, Django or Ruby on Rails, Google Analytics, and Facebook Canvas, validating a product by building a minimally viable version of it, or an MVP, and putting it in front of real customers is relatively a no-brainer kind of affair, yet not many people do it.  In his talk, Steve Blank stressed the importance of “doing it” as opposed to reading or talking about how it’s done. If you work at a large company, use the tools aforementioned to “do it.”  If you can’t code, try to onboard a developer to help you out. If you can’t, then maybe the universe is trying to tell you something.

It All Starts at The CEO Level

Senior executives to companies are the VCs to startups, for better or for worse. If your CEO doesn’t truly believe in validated learning and experimentation, the spirit of the lean startup is dead in the water in that organization. Many senior executives give good lip and rarely follow up with action. Beth Comstock from GE spoke about the protected class of ideas at GEThese are innovation teams believed in and protected by the CEO and are set up for success (i.e. they are funded, removed from the day-to-day chaos, …etc.)

It’s Not About You; It’s About The Team

Eric Ries stressed this point several times as did other speakers: in order for you to be successful, you need others to believe and embrace the lean startup principles as well. It was almost a call to action: how to inculcate these principles in our peers and organizations? How do we create an ecosystem in which validated learning is a core value? It was almost a call for evangelism. I believe the best way to show others the way is to lead by example. By “just doing it,” others will follow, especially after seeing the value of the ideas in practice.

Talk to Your Customers

We’ve all heard the “get out of the building” cry for action, but it all comes down to engaging with your customers and learning what their needs are. That’s accomplished by talking to customers in person or virtually through usability testings or even through collecting behavioral data through Google Analytics. As long as you’re “listening” to what customers are telling you and adjusting your product accordingly, you should be fine.

Cut The Crap!

My personal favorite learning from the conference. This encompasses cutting unnecessary features out of your MVP to speaking to people in the language they understand without the jargon. I find myself struggling with this a lot. Just because you understand what an “MVP” or “validated learnings” mean, it doesn’t mean that the person you’re talking to understands them as well as you do if at all. Taking the time to adjust your language to the audience before you is a crucial tool that ensures proper onboarding, understanding of, and ultimately the success of your project.

Use Android to Validate Mobile Products

I really liked Matt Brezina’s talk on Rapid Mobile Development and his contention that all products, including mobile, can be validated fast. This gets really important in mobile development since iOS development doesn’t lend itself to rapid development, given Apple’s tedious approval process. Matt’s suggestion to use a different platform for rapid testing mobile products is really interesting. Doing whatever it takes to find out if there’s a market for your product before building it out will in the end save you money and time. No one wants to work on an app or product for several months and have no one use it in the end. Now that would be heartbreaking.

Having Daily Outcomes

This was one of the learnings I spoke about from my experience. Validating a hypothesis or releasing a feature/test/fix every single day is important for success…and morale. Having 3-week iterations promotes procrastination and lots of wasted time. If you break down your product properly and “cut the crap” brutally, you will end up with very small tasks that can be tackled on daily basis. The team needs to leave for the day with a sense of accomplishment. This practice isn’t common in big companies and one that the lean startup spirit could help bring to the table.

These are the main themes that jumped at me. What do you think? Did I miss something?

I left the conference inspired to continue embracing the “just do it” mantra but also doing a better job in reaching out to different people across the company to help institutionalize the practice of validated learning and rapid experimentation. What will you do differently with these learnings in mind?

Edmunds.com API: Driving Innovation and Partnership with Open Data

I gave a talk at Mashery’s BAPI NY conference last week on the success of the open data initiative at Edmunds.com.  I gave a webinar a few months back on the same subject.  You can find the Edmunds API here. This is only the beginning 🙂

Why Ask Friends Who They Voted for in 2008 When Votizen Can Tell You That and More

I know voting records are public.  Notwithstanding, I was a little annoyed to learn that some of my seemingly apolitical Facebook and Twitter friends were Republican or voted Republican in 2008 when crazy Palin was running.  How did I know that?  I went to Votizen.com.  I’ve been a member for a while and I do like the site, but I wasn’t ready to see some people, most of whom I don’t really know that well, outed as Republicans.  Being a Republican today isn’t like being a Republican back in 1986, if you know what I mean.  In today’s political climate, I would have preferred not to know that about those people.

After getting annoyed for a day, I started to wonder: do these people even know that their political affiliation and voting records are now readily available for viewing by their Facebook and Twitter (and now LinkedIn) friends?  Would they be OK with that?  So I asked one of them.  He flipped out.  His response was, “dude, this is personal. How can they do this? I never signed up for an account there.”  He felt, well, outed.

Here’s the thing: we like to think that our political affiliation and voting records are personal and most of us avoid the topic all together at work, family gatherings, parties, …etc.  But in reality, all of that stuff is public data.  The folks at Votizen collected it, catalogued it, digitized it, standardized it and turned it into a product.  I’m not really sure any of us can do anything about it.

Here’s a snapshot of what I saw on Votizen.  I blurred the names and photos of those individuals out of respect.  I did the same thing with my Democrat friends.

Voting records might be public, but let’s give the choice back to individuals to determine with whom to share that public knowledge.  If not out of respect, at least out of courtesy.

All I know is: thank God I didn’t connect my LinkedIn account with Votizen!

Five Lessons Learned at The Reinvent Business Hackathon

Last weekend, two of my colleagues and I participated in the Reinvent Business hackathon in San Francisco. I’ve participated in Hackathons in the past where code with its sophistication and originality was the main focus. It was different this time around; the Reinvent Business hackathon was primarily a non-technical event focused on innovative business solutions as opposed to purely innovative technical solutions.

The experience was extremely fulfilling with many learnings to be shared. Here’s a list of the top 5 learnings we gleaned from the event:

    1. Frame the Problem: Hats off to the organizers of this hackathon! frog and LRN did a bang-up job with the logistics and the flow of the event. I liked the fact that spaces in which opportunities for business reinvention and innovation where clearly called out.  The 160 participants were then asked to state issues that need to be addressed under each space. The frogs (i.e. employees at frog) then took all those participant-generated statements and coalesced them into clearly articulated problem statements. The participants then organically gravitated toward the problem statements they wanted to solve, and in turn, meeting other likeminded individuals, which made it easy to form teams.  State the problem and let people come up with the solution.
      Adding opportunities for innovation under the Business Decision space at Reinvent Business hackathon
      Adding opportunities for innovation under the Business Decision space at Reinvent Business hackathon

      The frogs combining all submitted statements into clear problem statements individuals and teams could tackle
      The frogs combining all submitted statements into clear problem statements individuals and teams could tackle
    2. Inspire Don’t Direct: Dov Seidman, CEO at LRN, delivered the keynote speech.  He was absolutely inspirational. He challenged us to “innovate in humanity” by making business personal. He’s a master storyteller and got everyone stoked and ready to hack away!  To get people to care and do their best, you have to inspire them, not direct them.

      Dov Seidman giving the keynote speech at the Reinvent Business hackathon
      Dov Seidman giving the keynote speech at the Reinvent Business hackathon
    3. Less is More: I noticed that the teams that did well had not more than 5 members.  This reaffirmed my belief that the less people you have in a team (ideally between 3-5,) the better the product, the team and everyone involved for it. I believe this goes to the fact that smaller teams don’t suffer much from the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrom and will also likely to focus better. Obviously, there are many large teams that do very well, but those are the exception to the rule.
    4. Team Roles = Accountability: I know this firsthand since our team failed to assign clear roles like Team Captain, tech lead, …etc. Our team, on the human level, was awesome! But the fact that we didn’t have assigned roles meant that we did everything by committee. Design by Committee and Decision by Committee, both of which proved detrimental to our success. Assigned roles it clear what each member’s responsibilities are. With responsibility comes accountability and in turn focus to deliver and eventually success.
    5. Storytelling is Everything: No one cares about how awesome your code is or how complex your software architecture is. People care about the human story your product creates. Why is your product good for people? Why do they want to use it? How will it impact their lives? Our team built a mobile web app that illustrated our idea, but when it came time to sell the idea (i.e. pitch it) we focused more on the product than the people that would benefit from it. Ironically, the winning team had an identical idea to ours and no prototype. Yet they won and they won because they told a compelling, very engaging story about why their product is good for people and for business.  We didn’t win because we couldn’t agree on how to pitch our product and tried to accommodate every opinion.

      This team ROCKED! They told an awesome story and came in 2nd.
      This team ROCKED! They told an awesome story and came in 2nd.
The learnings are still sinking in and I’ll probably update this post with more learnings in the coming weeks. My colleagues and I left the event inspired and committed to making business personal and authentic through technology. Most importantly, we were inspired to tell better stories.
Team Edmunds (left to right): Ismail Elshareef, Daniel Kang and Joseph I
Team Edmunds (left to right): Ismail Elshareef, Daniel Kang and Joseph I