The TotallyMoney Big Hack

For a long time we’ve harboured an ambition to hold a hackday at TotallyMoney. Our previous one was a few years ago, so it was overdue. Willem, one of our engineering managers, was really keen on it and, in fact, had set it as an OKR for himself for the first half of 2020.

We’d kind of forgotten about it a bit with all the upheaval of coronavirus and remote working and so on. That has affected TotallyMoney just as it has affected almost every business. Willem brought it up again and we pondered the idea of doing a remote hackday. Not something I’d ever done before but it seemed like it might be possible so we started to work out the practicalities.

Crew members

We enlisted our Head of People - Felicity Winkley - to help, and also the unparalleled hype-man, James McCaffrey, for internal, and ultimately external, PR. Then we started to think about how it could work.

We decided early on to do a kind of meta-hack with Notion. A tool we’d been interested in for a while and were keen to trial. We used it to list the hacks and to allow people to signal their interest in being involved. The idea was that if we liked Notion we could adopt it more widely for ‘real work’ within TotallyMoney.

For me personally, as CTO, a key objective was to find a way to get non-tech (and design/ux) people involved in hacks in a meaningful way so that the event was as inclusive as possible. I’ve run many hackdays over the years yet I’ve never managed to solve this problem satisfactorily. It’s hard and I’ve seen some hackdays become almost toxic as a result. This time, we managed it. Or, rather, the participants did. Some of our best hacks were non-technical and I’m very grateful for that.

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Participation on the day was high. Probably ⅔ of the company got involved in some way, even if it was simply offering their services to a team for testing or research. Most of the rest of the business looked on with interest.

We had a large number of proposals for hacks submitted - about 25. We thinned those down to around 15 that we thought had potential to be worked on during the 24 hours we set aside for the hack. Then, at midday on Thursday 11th June we kicked off. Hype-man JMac had christened the day as ‘The Big Hack’, with a burger and fries theme, and we all got stuck in.

The quality of output on the day was amazing. Often, on a hackday, not much that’s usable, or even works, will be produced but, on The Big Hack, almost every team produced something useful and meaningful. That’s unusual in my experience and testament to the skill and determination of those involved.

Legends

The overall winner, as judged by Ali, our CEO, was a web-based synth and theremin (using the camera on the device). It looks slick and polished and includes a lot of features for one day of work. We had some prizes in other categories (that we kind of made up on the day in true hacking style) - best non-tech; most technically challenging; most useful and most fun. The winners of those prizes were:

  • Best Non-Tech - Shared Shelves: a cultural library and book sharing service for TotallyMoney staff with a particular focus on under-represented cultures and history - black history, non-western history, queer history, feminism, modern British history, etc.
  • Most technically Challenging - TM-tac-toe: A machine-learning based tic tac toe game that will learn and improve as more people play. (https://github.com/danieltimar/tictactoe_ai)
  • Most useful - Book-it: A multi-purpose, Slack-based booking system for activities at TotallyMoney (e.g. football, badminton, yoga, massages) that incorporates rules to make the booking fairer (e.g. if you got in last week then you’ll be downgraded in favour of someone who didn’t. If you book then don’t turn up you will be penalised).
  • Most fun - TM-agotchi: A slightly bonkers idea to make a pet that lives in Slack and pops up at random moments, in random places and can be fed and nurtured with emojis. A bit like a Slack Tamagotchi. (https://github.com/totallymoney/BigHack2020-tm-agotchi)

Deluxe

So, the day was a success. I sat back and thought that to myself about two hours into Thursday. My thinking was that, even if nothing else came of it, the communication and interaction alone made the day worthwhile. Those things are obviously more important than ever whilst we’re working remotely. One of the things that we made clear at the beginning was that failures would be celebrated (and I believe that is just as true with real work as it is with hacks) so we didn’t really care that much about the output.

For me, perhaps the best bit about The Big Hack was that we produced a number of things that I’m confident will become cornerstones of TotallyMoney culture in the coming months and years. Shared Shelves is the most obvious example and I’ve personally got involved in that. I hope it’ll be part of TotallyMoney cultural fabric for years to come.

TM-agotchi is a really cute and fun thing that I hope will cheer all of us up now and again over the coming months.

Some people made an online quiz buzzer, that takes account of internet connection latency, which we will use for our weekly TotallyMoney Zoom quizzes.

Book-it will make event booking easier and fairer. (https://github.com/totallymoney/bighack-book-it)

Someone made a Strava-linked Slackbot thing that posts the running kilometre stats for TotallyMoney staff each week (https://github.com/totallymoney/totallyrunning-slackbot).

One team got together to arrange a monthly photography exhibition - ExhibiTM.

There’s even an Alexa app that tells you what colour bins need to go out this week.

Selects

A couple of personal favourites of mine though - Felicity made a great musical video for the sunflower growing challenge she’s organised. She posted seeds to every employee and we’ll post our progress in a Slack channel. Lovely thing to receive in lockdown and perhaps we’ll host the competition every year now.

And a large group of people, led by Molly, pulled together a TotallyMoney recipe book. We’ve been sharing recipes and photos of meals on Slack during lockdown and this was used as the starting material for a book. Our ultimate plan is to produce a hardback book and then sell it, with the money going to charity. Probably a foodbank in Hackney that TotallyMoney staff have previously volunteered at and donated to.

Both of those things felt like tremendous, community-minded, things whilst we’re all remote.

Happy Me-al

I would really recommend running a remote hackday. If anything, it worked better than hackdays I have run whilst in the office and the benefit was clearly greater at this difficult time. It helped people to communicate and connect. I’d also urge you to make sure your hackdays are inclusive for non-tech people.

The wrap

If you want to speak about exactly how to do that, or just pick my brains, you can contact me on mdurrand@totallymoney.com or #markdurrand and I’d be happy to help. I’d love to talk to people running their own Hackdays, regardless of whether you need my help. And I’m sure many of our TotallyMoney people would be happy to chat or help too.

Hack on friends!

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