July 30, 2012

Inside Etsy Hack Week

                                                             An engineer hard at work at Etsy headquarters.

Not being a computer geek myself, I wasn't sure what a Hack Week was, no less the role I might play in one at Etsy. But I try to attend every Etsy event to which I am invited since I'm convinced that the keys to sales success lie somewhere in the building at 55 Washington Street in Brooklyn, and the more frequently I visit, the greater the likelihood that I will stumble upon them.

Hacking, which often has a negative connotation, is actually the skillful writing or refining of computer programs, especially an unofficial alternative or addition. Hack Week is a five-day event started by Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson that allows the company's engineers to abandon their regular work and concentrate instead on a project of their choosing. Engineers, who create solutions that bridge the gap between discoveries and human needs, apply scientific knowledge, math and ingenuity to technical problems while considering cost and practicality. And twice a year they get to have some serious fun with it.

Members of the engineering department form ad hoc teams, and spend 120 hours trying to create the change they want to see in the world. They iron out the kinks, and in a company-wide presentation, sell their ideas.  Etsians vote on which idea is best, and the new feature goes into effect almost immediately. Last year, Etsy Hack Week resulted in the floating heart that hovers over products that can be clicked to Favorite an item. The code name was Cassanova, but that's the only secret I could get out of anyone during Hack Week.

So what was I, a  New York Etsy team member, doing there? Intel. A handful of us shared information on how we work with our shops. We sat at two picnic tables piled high with fruit plates, and as dogs trotted into the room and subways rumbled by, the engineers threw out questions to the group. Dressed in shorts and t-shirts, or a bow tie and blue nail polish, they came and went, posed questions, and then disappeared. I leaned over to spy on the computer screen of the one closest to me, a friendly guy with a mop of black hair in a purple t-shirt with a digitized cartoon figure on front. They all looked casual and at ease, these engineers, but while listening to sellers speak, most had multiple windows open on their computers, with code running on their screens. The stuff looked like science fiction.

Etsy code from the Code as Craft blog.

And in English, it's not much better. I'll take you to lunch if you can figure out what this means: "We created a tool that runs a sample of popular and long-tail queries through a new algorithm and displays as much information as can be determined without real people being involved; an estimated percent of changed search results over the universe of all queries…"

The engineers popped in and out of the room because as soon as their questions were answered, they disappeared back to their desks, impatient to turn their project ideas into realities. They were researching, then applying and transforming the information we gave them. The clock was ticking. The pressure was on; day one was nearly over. On a wall, above their collective desks, there is a sign that reads We Can Do Hard Things.

Indeed. Etsy gets more than 10,000 emails a week that must be responded to quickly and with detailed answers. Launch Planning and Operational Reviews assure that any system changes that are rolling out over the coming weeks are stable. Near the engineer's sector are six super-sized TV screens, each with data or graphs, that illustrate Etsy is running smoothly. These guys -- and nine women --  are the air traffic controllers of the handmade world. 

The engineers asked what frustrates us, and what we would change if we could. We threw all sorts of ideas at them. "Are we asking for the world?" I leaned over and queried the purple-shirted engineer, because we basically wanted our Etsy shops to do everything we have ever used and loved in Google, on an Apple, or even in an Angry Birds game. We don't understand what it takes to make these things happen, so if it's Christmas in July, why not ask Santa for e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g?

"No," he laughed. The engineers were hungry to learn what we cared about. On a normal workday, they measure their successes by the Mean Time Between Wins (MTBW), and good information from us could improve their Time.

I noticed one quiet engineer, sitting a little off to the side, who frequently flashed an all-knowing smile when team members talked about features they liked. About one improvement he said: "It was incredibly painful when I was creating it a few years ago, so I'm glad you use it." I later learned the redhead was Kellan Elliott-McCrea, the Chief Technology Officer, who dropped out of a Russian Literature degree to sell his first start-up to Palm, then built a site that morphed into Twitter. Before joining Etsy, he created many of the key systems that allowed Flickr to reach the size it is today.

So were we of value to these technological geniuses? Evidently, yes. Some of our ideas were "blindingly-obvious-in retrospect," to the engineers, and those were the best, said the CTO. On a more abstract level, it was "really interesting to hear about sellers inventing a process of experimentation and discovery on top of the site's current tool kit. It's clearly work we could be doing a better job to support, especially as it meshed well with how we think about our own work."

Lest you think engineers are not makers in the manner that Etsy sellers are makers, take a peak at their blog, Code as Craft (http://codeascraft.etsy.com). It's evidence that  they make their living with a craft they love, which in this case is software. The blog chronicles their experiences building and running a handmade marketplace. There is also a Code is Craft lecture series at headquarters.

So what invention won Hack Week? At press time, the engineers were still working hard on demo pitches to employees! Stay tuned to find out what they chose…

Susan and Natasha, Wink and Flip


Aneta Hayne said...

Great post !! I love it :) It was so much fun to visit Etsy for Hack Week and this is a great summery from this meeting :)I'm posting it on my FB page, so my fans can learn a bit inside-out about Magic Kingdom of Etsy.

etsy.com/shop/winkandflip said...

wow, Aneta, thanks. I am honored to be on your FB page. Susan

Simone said...

Fantastic post. I wish I had been there it sounds like so much fun!