Insider Inc. held its second-ever hackathon — these are some of the top ideas our tech teams came up with

Business Insider, Jason Merriman

If you were given one week to build something new or innovative that would benefit people or your company, what would you create?

Here at Business Insider, our tech team was given that opportunity in our first-ever hack week in December 2016 – and it was such a success that we recently held “Hack Week 2: The Unhackening.”

As a way to kick off our hacking, we hold a team meeting to pitch ideas, review some suggestions for projects, and form teams. All participants are then given four days – Monday through Thursday – to work on their passion project, concluding with presentations on Friday.

Each participant/team is able to use technologies they prefer, which really allows for creativity and gives everyone a chance to stretch their legs and work on something cool they may not have had time for otherwise.

Our first hack week, held last December, was a fun experiment that culminated in the whole team gathering in our building’s auxiliary cafe for presentations. There was great energy in the room as the team shared their creations – like a lunch-ordering plugin for Slack, sentiment analysis of our story content, and even an interactive, customizable corn-hole game (an office favorite here.)

One of the award winning ideas, a webhook that shows editors who else is currently editing the same post, was released into production as a quick follow.

“Hack Week 2: The Unhackening” resulted in another batch of improvements, creative solutions and candidates for production-ready products. As is our (albeit new) tradition, voting was held for a variety of award titles. We spoke with a few of the winners to get a better look into their own processes and projects.

“Project Valkyrie”

Gabrien Symons

Award: Most Collaborative Hacker: Zakir Tariverdiev

How did you come up with your idea?

An associate approached me awhile ago and suggested that editing the content of an article directly on the site would be more more efficient than using Viking, our content management system. I found the idea to be very interesting and we discussed possible benefits and drawbacks of this approach.

This idea had to be placed on the back-burner until there was a window of opportunity to work on its implementation. Hack week was a perfect time to revisit this concept. Implementing it as a browser extension felt like the right approach.

Since 92% of Business Insider’s editors use Chrome, I decided to go with that browser. The name Valkyrie was born because I wanted this app to be the counterpart of Viking CMS. It’s not a copy of Viking and is not really a CMS. It is a very efficient content-editing tool that allows editors to make and view changes right on Insider Inc. websites.

What was your favorite part of working on your project?

My favorite part was that I got to learn a technology I never worked with before. The Chrome extension API is a bit different from what I am used to working with.

My extension also needed to talk to the Malsgufa, the Viking back-end API service, and be able to perform such tasks as checking user permissions and updating content. This, in turn, made the extension significantly more complex than the examples normally found in online tutorials. So a lot of trial, error, and most importantly, learning occurred during its development process.

If you had one more day to work on your concept, is there something you might add, change or otherwise finesse?

There is always a place for improvement, but I accomplished everything that I planned for the presentation.

I have ideas on how to make the Valkyrie app better and possibly extend it to support landing pages and provide drag and drop functionality. None of that was planned for the presentation though, so overall I’m happy with how it worked out.

Is there anything you would recommend to other hack-week hackers out there?

To get the best learning experience, it’s best to tackle projects outside of your comfort zone. Try technologies or frameworks you always wanted to check out, but never had the time. Also, don’t get bogged down in implementation details when coming up with the concept as that can hinder your project development. Think outside of what you can do and aim to learn as much as possible during the project. You are pretty much guaranteed to be a better programmer after the project is over.

“What it would be like to have interactive graphs on our site”

Bryan Fellerath

Award: The X-Factor Hacker: Bryan Fellerath

How did you come up with your idea?

I have been interested in building an interactive data visualization using D3 [a programming language for HTML5-based visual features] js for awhile.

I also saw that in the hack-week suggestions from editorial, someone wrote this impassioned entry:

“Everyone else says “in-browser image editing, custom cropping, and a much better image library search + experience.” So I will dream big: D3-powered charts. You host data on the site and it renders catchy and interactive data charts, quizzes, maps, etc. Very sticky content. I think a D3-powered story on the New York Times that predicted the region you’re from is still that outlet’s most popular online story of all-time(?). This capability would open up *amazing* story possibilities in a data-rich world in which readers crave strong visuals. It’d also make Business Insider more of a unique destination apart from our syndication partners, since readers would have to come to our site for them.”

That was enough to encourage me that it was worth it to pursue the goal of having an interactive graph display in a BI post.

What was your favorite part of working on your project?

My favorite part was working with D3 to build a useful data visualization graph. I was really happy to get the data from Andy Kiersz and it was really fun working on displaying the data to be visually engaging.

I also hadn’t really thought about interactives from a product perspective. It really only makes sense to use interactives in the right situations. There are a lot of things to think about, like how much time your audience has, and it’s always good to remember that simple bar and line graphs convey a lot of information already.

I liked that this project got me thinking about these things, doing some general research on the state of Interactive Data Visualizations in media today.

If you had one more day to work on your concept, is there something you might add, change or otherwise finesse?

I would add more of the data to my interactive graph! The product for hack week toggled between the overall data and one subset; I would make it toggle between all the subsets.

Is there anything you would recommend to other hack-week hackers out there?

Don’t be afraid to pursue an idea that sounds a little out there and might not perfectly fit in as a product after just a week or so of work. There is a lot I learned by working on this, like the value of data visualization overall and how it can fit in (or not fit in) to a particular scenario.

I feel like I have a better idea of what goes into implementing something like this and how it could be implemented better. It is a learning experience and it makes sense to choose something that you feel passionate about.

“Albino Alligator”

Bryan Young

Award: Most Enthusiastic Hacker: Bryan Young

Albino Alligator was a study of engineers at BI. The purpose of the study was to better understand our culture, its opportunities and challenges, and how individuals related to it.

My goal was to determine what the common understanding of “BI culture” was by finding patterns across interviewees, and (hopefully) solidify and improve culture by making improvement recommendations based on those patterns. *takes breath*

How did you come up with your idea?

I facilitate a bi-weekly Lean Coffee session called “Process Improvements Office Hours” – its purpose is to understand, discuss, and recommend action items for some of our organizational challenges.

Those sessions are great, but a) it’s a small subset of the engineering team, b) the tone and subject of the meetings can be dictated by a thing that happened 10 minutes beforehand, leaving it almost suspiciously at the whims of whatever happens to be going on that day; and most importantly, c) many people don’t feel comfortable talking about such things in a group setting. Someone, I can’t remember who, recommended talking to everyone one-on-one and compiling the themes of those conversations in a report. Whoever that someone is came up with the idea. I liked it!

What was your favorite part of working on your project?

Seeing that there are cultural qualities that make some people very happy and others very unhappy. What do we do about these things? How do we determine which qualities to focus on?

Thinking about these sorts of issues helped me recognize my own biases and remember that perception is totally subjective.

If you had one more day to work on your concept, is there something you might add, change or otherwise finesse?

My interviews concluded by the end of the day on Thursday, so I had very little time to compile and interpret the data. If I had had more time or could do it again, I might have someone else compile and interpret the data separately and see if we came to the same conclusions.

Is there anything you would recommend to other hack-week hackers out there?

You don’t have to write a single line of code to validate a hypothesis.