Making Hack-time Work

Working at Belly has its perks – unlimited vacation days, ability to work from home, and required hack-time. Hack time is what we as engineers call our free time for projects that aren’t super imperative but are interesting and fun. It’s a chance to do something different, new and occasionally risky. Cool projects have popped up because of our allowed hack-time, but we consistently have one problem.

Our team is never at a loss for work and we want to do it well. So hack-time often suffers. I can’t really fault anyone for that but as our team has grown, less and less of us are using hack-time. We used to reserve the second half of every Friday for hack-time. Let’s be honest, half of a day isn’t very much time. It’s hard to start a brand new project on a Friday and make progress on it. So we experimented with different formats of how to make hack-time work.

We then tried a full week every 8 or 10 weeks. This seemed like a really great plan until we hit a big problem. One of us typically gets pulled away on the second or third day of hack-time week to do something else. It disrupts the momentum for the rest of us so by the end of the week, everyone is just back to a regular schedule. We all care a lot about what we do here and we feel like we’re letting down the rest of the company when we take a break from our normal jobs.

So we switched to 1 day every other week. But, this was right in the middle of a 2 week sprint so we ended up using hack-time to work on normal work. And still, a day wasn’t enough to really get into the meat of potential new projects.

The next proposed solution was 2 days for hack-time every 4 weeks at the end of a sprint. These 2 days live independently of anything else. This results in a sprint that’s shorter than the one before it. It’s a little weird with planning project management, but we’re making it work. Our sprints wrap up around 5pm on Wednesday, giving us plenty of time Wednesday night, Thursday, Thursday night, and Friday to work on something. Two days, plus a few nights, seemed like the perfect amount of time.

We tried this new format for the first time last week. Our team produced some real quality work. Lunch was ordered in both days and we presented our projects on Friday. Two days for hack-time is just what we need. It allows us to slip out of our usual roles and try new and different things while at the same time not leaving the business hanging.

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