ETech: Big Company Hacks at Yahoo

Earlier today Yahoo launched a Yahoo Mail API. Recently we analyzed the current API and Mashup trends on the Web and noted that Yahoo is one of the big companies most active in this area. Also not long ago we profiled Yahoo! Pipes - a new tool that, we argued, treats the web as the database. We later expanded these ideas in our post entitled When Sites become Web Services. The major theme running through all these posts is that the Web is turning into a database exposed via APIs. Web giants like Google, Amazon and Yahoo! have been tapping into the large web development community, by exposing their services via APIs. 

Here at ETech, Chad Dickerson, Sr. Director of the Yahoo! Developer Network, gave a session about Yahoo's experience in engaging its own engineers to utilize Yahoo! APIs in creative ways.

According to Programmable Web, Yahoo! currently has over twenty APIs. These APIs, along with additional development resources, are available on the Yahoo! Developer Network. There is plenty to dive into - from the better known Flickr, Chat and Map APIs to online Ad Management and Web Site Analytic services. The latest edition is of course the Mail API. These APIs provide a big opportunity to get creative. So to facilitate the exploration and to encourage the discovery of new mashups - and possibly products - Yahoo! management decided to call on their own engineers to play around. Or in Yahoo's lingo, to hack. The official Yahoo! Hacks program calls for self-directed projects by Y! engineers, which do not need to be approved by anyone in advance.

Yahoo's method to the madness

The self-organization is exciting and powerful, but to get results there needs to be control. Yahoo's answer is "Hack days", where developers can showcase their creations to their colleagues. Here are the rules:

  • Build something in 24 hours;
  • No Power Points;
  • Present in 90 seconds;
  • No prior review, anything goes.

These rules encourage small teams to do what they love, letting people create what they want and, occasionally, letting the bizarre out.

In addition to internal hacking, Yahoo! opened up the program to a group of external hackers and invited them in September to the Yahoo! campus for a full day of hacking. According to Yahoo! the day turned out to be a "mega success".

Examples of Hacks

What goes on during the internal hack days is kind of a secret. Chad shared an example of a rather controversial hack. It was a web site built in 'Hot or Not' style, showing pictures of Yahoo! employees and letting people choose who they think is the boss of who. The application kept track of all "mistakes" and then displayed a chart for who should be promoted or demoted. Apparently calls from the Human Resources department followed.

Another hack was a purse that would take a photo after you walk every 100 steps and then use the Flickr API to upload it online. Yet another interesting hack was created by a group of developers, who turned an old TV into a widget display. One of the widgets connected to the internet and showed (you guessed it) the current weather.

Conclusion

At first, this 'hack' culture might seem to be somewhat chaotic and wasteful. It is in a way, but there is also a big potential gain. By using self-organization, Yahoo! bets that while a lot of these hacks will be mildly interesting - there may be a handful that are profound and game changing for the company. Since there are so many APIs, possibilities are almost endless. 

Yahoo! hacks is a great program that could lead to breakthrough ideas and products. The key question is how to add a process on top of this dynamic and fluid process, that drives productization and monetization of the best prototypes. Presumably, the really interesting solutions get noticed and get on the management radar screen. It is not clear if Yahoo! is doing this already, but it would seem that an nternal, Digg-like system where all Yahoo! employees would be able to rate creations, could be also helpful. We will see over the next year or so how Yahoo! executes this project, but the potential is definitely there.

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