Tuesday 10th April saw DStv Online’s running its first internal hack day. Hack days are a growing phenomenon in technology-driven organisations, particularly where innovation is a key ingredient of differentiation and success.

Hack events vary in structure, from the marathon-like 24 – 48 hour events to ones like ours where everything is contained in one day. What’s the idea? To bring skilled architects and developers together – outside their normal commitments – to delve deep into some key technologies and innovate around ways these technologies can be used.

For us the brief was simple:

  • Explore the Facebook APIs (particularly OpenGraph)
  • Work in small teams – no more than 3
  • Don’t work with people in your current teams
  • Come up with an idea
  • Present it to the whole company

Naturally with that level of carte blanche, there are some ambitious ideas – and some teams really did shoot high!

The developers came from various internal teams – some from the portfolios responsible for SuperSport, Original Productions (MasterChef SA, Big Brother Africa and Idols), some from DStv.com, or products that span all , such as DStv Connect, others from the Labs team who R&D some of our concept products that already push the envelope, or from the Architecture team.

This was more of a hack sprint – with people kicking off at 8:30 AM and presenting at 3PM, leaving only 6 ½ hours to completely thrash out the concept. Some of those big ideas were too big for such a time frame, so those teams stuck to developing the core concept, rather than the fully completed product.

Energy was high on the day – teams broke off into separate work groups; some hot-desking on the floor, others sprawled in our Lounge, yet some retiring to discussion rooms to shut out the outside world.

In the end we had to choose a winner and 2 runners-up, and it wasn’t easy. Any one of the ideas can – and probably will – be spun off as a key function of one of our existing products, or perhaps spawn a new product entirely.

Our winners worked on something which will see its way into the BoxOffice product, to allow users’ stated preferences in entertainment on Facebook to shape the titles offered to them. Team: Francois – Architecture, Pete – SuperSport.com and Naz – Dstv.com

The runners up looked at overlaying social activity extracted from facebook with the actual DStv guide itself. Deep integration and a big idea. This came from Shaun – DStv.com, Gareth – Video On Demand , and Ajay – DStv Connect

Second runner-up was a team who shot really high on a concept, but ran out of time in the end (deadlines? On a hack-day? Oh yes…) These guys looked at using the D3 JavaScript API to perform visualisations while extracting semantic meaning from the news feed. Team: Chris – Architecture, Terence – SuperSport.com Games and Monde – SuperSport.com Partners

The next step is to develop the concept more. Perhaps increase it to a 24 hour event – with pizza – and hit that midnight hour when the nocturnal developer comes alive. After a couple we’d like to throw it open perhaps to people outside the organisation, and of course look deep into other technologies.