Product at the Speed of Social – Hacking at the NewsGator Collective

Product development happens quickly at NewsGator. We build, test and ship new releases every four months. We work hard to incorporate customer priorities and feedback during those cycles – we are always trying to build the things that customers need right now (and occasionally we build things that we know they’ll need soon).

So when our CEO suggested that we do a hackathon during our Collective customer and partner event, it seemed like a natural fit. Here was an opportunity to talk directly to customers and build something in one day. It just doesn’t get any more agile than that.

But when everything has to come together in about a day, you want to have a plan that is flexible enough to handle contingencies. Because organizing something like this is a quite a bit of work during a time that’s already pretty busy, I was very fortunate to have Lane Mohler lead the effort. I got to bounce in and out and give my ideas while he did the hard part of managing the details. A special note of thanks here to Todd, Tyler and Jerry who did the logistical work of making it possible for the team to do development from a hotel for one day. And another note of thanks to Britta for fulfilling all of our other logistical and prize needs! Here’s how we went about it and how it turned out.

Making it easy for customers and partners to be involved was the number one objective. At the Collective, there are tons of great sessions and lots to be learned from the other participants. We didn’t want to force people to miss a lot of that time. We also wanted this to be fun for everyone. Not every customer or partner brought developers to the Collective. To make sure anyone could participate, we formed four teams of NewsGator developers ahead of time. This meant customers and partners could participate at any level from brainstorming ideas to coding.

Creating something of real value was the other big objective. Sometimes the value in these kinds of activities comes from the exploration and learning. But our goal was to actually produce features that could be shipped. At NewsGator, ownership is one of the key tenants in how we build software. Developers and testers have a ton of authority and responsibility in shaping the product (in fact, everyone at NewsGator really shapes Social Sites). We thought it would be really cool to give customers and partners a taste of that. For a product that’s deployed to millions of users, it’s pretty cool to be able to say, “I helped make that feature!”

So with pre-made teams of developers, we were ready to add customers and partners and get coding. But coding on what? Here we wanted to be really flexible in taking input, but we also had to think about the specific areas of expertise on each team. To help get each team ready, we created a starting focus area for each team along with some specific ideas taken from existing customer suggestions. This way, we were ready to help match up customers with teams, and we had some examples of what we thought might make a good one-day challenge. But we told each team that what they would need to work out the specific project in conjunction with the customers on their team. At that point, it was just a matter of waiting to see how many customers and ideas we would need to sort through.

As the Collective kicked off, I tried to think about how we would handle different scenarios. What if we got a ton of people who wanted to participate? Could we split into more than four teams? We had asked people ahead of time to get a sense of interest, but I know that I usually end up making a lot of choices about what I’m going to when I’m at the actual conference. What if we had ideas that just couldn’t possibly get developed far enough to be demonstrated in one day? What if we had a blizzard (we were doing this in Denver in March…)?

When the time came to gather everyone to form the teams and pick the ideas, we were very fortunate. We got four customer stakeholders to pair up with the four development teams. We sorted through several ideas before settling on four that seemed both valuable and achievable. We knew some of the ideas would take more than a day to be ready for shipping, but we felt we could at least get to the point where the idea could be demonstrated.

The teams dug in right away on Wednesday morning. Three of the teams worked in a small meeting room at the conference while one team worked from the office. When you’re working in new environments, lots of things come up. The wifi connectivity had intermittent issues. The virtual development environments for the hackathon didn’t have all the software that’s installed on everyone’s personal development environments. Putting everyone in the same small room meant that different styles of working stand out.

During the actual day of hacking, I ended up doing a few meetings with customers and partners. Generally, progress was great for the teams through the first part of the day. But by mid-afternoon, two of the teams had hit real issues. The NewsGator developers get to deal with complex issues frequently. Customer SharePoint deployments are complex, and building on top of SharePoint adds real depth to the code. But with a short timeframe to get something demonstrable, these issues became a bit more intense.

By late afternoon, however, everyone had code that was working. Still there was plenty of uncertainty about possible bugs or getting the features polished. It was fun to see customers come in to check progress and give feedback and encouragement. In the end, all the teams produced something cool that solved a real customer need. The customers helped present the work, and they were all very excited to see their concept come to reality so quickly.

So in a day, we added all of these features as things that will ship with our next release:

  • Consolidation of notifications in the activity stream web part with a more detailed view of each notification and the ability to mute further notifications from the web UI.
  • The ability to track hashtags and be notified for specific tags being used.
  • More control of file upload in the activity stream with smart automated behaviors and capture of metadata.
  • The ability to award badges that require approvals (typically for badges with valuable currency attached) – more generally generating activity stream interactions from SharePoint workflows.

I’m extremely proud of what the team accomplished in a day, but I think the bigger lesson is that social moves fast. Every day, our customers and partners come up with great new ideas on how to deliver more value with Social Sites. We make it a priority to take their input and rapidly release product that unlocks that value. The hackathon proved to be an excellent example of how customer feedback can turn into great features in short period of time. This only happens with great customers taking a collaborative view toward constantly improving the product, and fantastic developers taking ownership of delivering that value. Thanks to everyone who participated – you rock!

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