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Disqus Hackathon

Posted by Jeff Pollard on November 05, 2013

In office team dinner during the Hackathon.

From the morning of Thursday, September 26th until the morning of Monday, September 30th, the entirety of the Disqus Engineering and Product teams participated in an internal Hackathon. For those 96 hours, teams of 1-5 members rapidly hacked together working prototypes (or sometimes more) of new Disqus features, internal tools, designs and other experimental product ideas.

After all the hacking came to a close, each team was given a chance to present their project in front of the entire company at our weekly Monday all hands meeting. The hope was to sway the judges pick their project as the winner, receiving a prize and “eternal gory” within the organization.

Hackathon Projects

Groups built quite a large diversity of projects, targeting many different areas of the product and company. There are too many to cover in their entirety in this blog post, but here is a small sample:


Better Support Feedback

Daniel Matteson, a community support member, wrote a Python script which finds resolved tickets from Phabricator (our ticket tracking tool) and matches them to cases in Desk, appending a certain label to each case:

The script also sends a notification email based on these changes, which helps us follow up with users who have contacted us about a recently resolved issue:


Embeddable Comments

Gabe Fouason, a front-end engineer, extended our embed code to create code which allows you to embed an individual comment on a webpage (similar to Twitter’s embedded tweet). To showcase this new functionality, he created “Comment Roulette,” which picks and embeds a single random comment every time you click the “Pow!” button:


Dogfood

Backend engineers Adam Hitchcock and Kashif Malik, plus designer Alec Schmidt, product manager Kathy Simpson and engineering intern Andrew Sutton made an internal app to share links and other content from the internet with other Disqus employees. The goal being to spend more time using our application, helping us find bugs and become inspired for new features:


Sam Parker, VP of product, Charles Covey-Brant, a front-end engineer, and Jono Lee, a product designer, hacked together a basic version of a search engine to find interesting communities on the Disqus network:


Results

After the presentations at the all hands meeting, the judges convened to choose a winner. Later that day at an in-office happy hour, an overall Hackathon winning project was announced. The winning team’s project was to create new user interface and some initial backend prototyping for improved Disqus network user notifications and activity streams.”

Importance of Hackathons

This was the 2nd Hackathon that Disqus has ever done. The first one was about a year ago, way back in November of 2012. Future Hackathons will occur much more often, however, as a few months ago we decided to do Hackathons on a quarterly basis.

The reason for the change was that we’ve embraced Hackathons as important to our product development process. Technology and our industry moves quickly - every day there are new product ideas, technologies or other concepts that can and will change the way Disqus works and does business. It’s crucial for us to stay nimble and at the forefront of these trends, as as the day we become slow and old is the day we start to loose our edge.

Yet day-to-day, we’re still a small company running a large network, so often times exploratory or “outside the box” projects can slip through the cracks and take a back seat to the business of the day to day. Hackathons are a great way for the business to buck that trend and give space for innovation with relatively minimal cost and overhead.

Hackathons are also great for employees too, as they show that the business has a ton of trust in their employees. It’s a commitment by the business to the employees, saying: “we know you’re all talented, creative and innovative people. We’ll put the business on hold for a couple days to show us what you got.” Employees get a chance to work with different coworkers on a new project that they’re very passionate about, and gives all employees a chance to innovate and experiment, even if their day job doesn’t allow them to do so.

Moving On from Here

Overall, twenty members of the product development staff (engineering, product managers, support) spread across fifteen total teams produced projects for the Hackathon . While the majority of projects were explorations of technologies or first stabs at useful tools, a half-dozen projects were incorporated into immediate use, or will continue to be worked on in the immediate future.

In fact, as our 2013 Q4 product strategy was laid out, the Hackathon had direct influence in shaping that direction. Projects, ideas and concepts spearheaded at the Hackathon made their way into what we’re going to be working on for the next few months. It’s a very positive and rewarding trend, and one we hope to continue for the future.

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