How to 'Hack' Your Way to Success

Sometimes the best results come from less planning and more doing.
July 25, 2013

Shutterstock has a storied history of "hacking." As with many tech companies, our founder, Jon Oringer, and early employees were engineers. And when they started out in 2003, quite a bit of hacking—the completely legal kind of hacking—was required just to get a business off the ground.

Now that our global marketplace for imagery and video has been around for a decade and gone through an IPO, we here at Shutterstock continue to celebrate those roots by holding annual hackathons (furious, free-form 24-hour open-sky inventing and coding sessions) and "code rages" to remind us of how we got here. To encapsulate why we do this (and why you should too), I spent some time with our engineering team to help define the “spirit of a hack.”

"A hack is a quick and elegant solution to a complicated problem. It's the adult equivalent of LEGO: You have a bunch of blocks and you mash them together and get a spaceship. Just as a musician jams or a writer has an epiphany, the code equivalent is a hack."

—Dan McCormick, Senior Vice President of Engineering

Why Hack?

There are a multitude of different reasons to hack. One of my favorites is showing people what can be done in a very short amount of time when you stop talking about doing things and just build.

There's something incredibly authentic about giving it your all for 24 hours and seeing what can happen. The time constraint is important, because it forces you to build the high-value/low-effort bits first.

Another reason to hack is to see an idea in context—being able to click, swipe, and experience a product in a browser or on a mobile device is far more effective than talking about it in abstract (or via PowerPoint, Gantt chart, or Photoshop).

Here are a few more good reasons from the Shutterstock team:

"I hack for fun. I want to try out new technology and do something I like. The most important thing is to have fun, do something cool, and share it with others. The primary motivator is not putting it into production (although that's nice), but to experiment."

—Ben Kovacevich, Engineer

"A lot of people around here are idea factories, and hacking is a great way to get those ideas out of our heads and into an environment where someone can use them. Developers can work on something new, or they can fix something that's been bothering them."

—Kris Arnold, Lead Engineer

Hackathons and Code Rages

When Shutterstock was being built, a few of the original employees used to say "rage!" when they pushed code live that moved the business forward. From that, we got the name for our tech team, Code Rages.

Lots of companies hold hack sessions, but we have our own reasons for conducting them. First, as lean/agile as Shutterstock is, we still have a process for getting the most valuable things done first, and that can sometimes push ideas to the side that aren't well articulated, but have high potential. Hackathons are a great place for those ideas to come to life.

Another reason we have hack sessions is to remember what it felt like when the company was just a few people against the world. We avoid complacency like the plague and hackathons help us with that.

"There's a really good White Stripes song called “Little Room,” about how you start in a little room, trying to do something good, and it leads to big things. But then, when you’re in a bigger room, you might need to remember how it felt in the small room."

—Zubin Tiku, Mobile Engineer

"The whole site was a big hack for years, in the early days. We started with a bunch of guys who had a super-tight feedback loop and would make changes on the fly. Now, we do our hackathons because the undercurrents of this feedback loop are deeply seeded in our culture."

—Travis Beck, Architect

Don't Stop

For all these reasons and more, I suspect we'll be hacking for years to come, regardless of our size. Our hackathons and code rages have produced some outstanding work—with much of it getting to production and being used by our customers on a daily basis. This is how we got here, and there's a seed of this ritual that we’ll continue to grow right alongside the company itself.

If you haven’t tried it yourself, give it a shot. Just set aside the time to drop everything for a day, split into teams, and get to work on your craziest and best ideas. You might surprise yourself with where you end up.

Wyatt Jenkins is Shutterstock's Vice President of Product.

Photos: Shutterstock