Babbel Bytes

Insights from the Babbel engineering team

The 1st Babbel Hackday

Ray

Friday, April 4th, we held the first Babbel Hackday. Starting at 10 a.m, more than 40 developers, designers, analysts and product managers gathered at Co-Up at the backyard of the Adalbertstraße in Berlin-Kreuzberg for a full day of hacking madness.

The complete staff of Babbel’s Product and Engineering departments and the BI team took part in the event. At Babbel Product, Engineering, and BI work closely together on various apps for web and mobile platforms. While our main goal for the Hackday was to bring people together through temporary teams for light-hearted, hackday-only projects, we also intended to provide some space for any ideas lying dormant in the existing teams. We also just wanted to have a fun day, and we were anticipating some great results.

First Babbel Hackday Logo


What it takes to organize a Hackathon

During the month prior to the Hackday, each week saw one step further. We - that is, the team of 5 people preparing the event: product managers, engineers, graphic designers - started by deciding on the date and the basic rules 4 weeks in advance. During this first week of preparation, we sent out invitations and set up an idea board on our company wiki for participants to share their ideas.

Week 2 was reserved for collecting ideas and adding them to the idea board. We checked the budget and started looking for a venue. Some crazy locations were discussed, but in the end we liked Co-Up at Adalbertstrasse most.

Week 3 was focused on building teams. We made the rounds and encouraged participants to find either the right people for their idea, or the right idea for their skills. T-Shirt designs were finalized. The shirts were ordered. Catering was fixed.

In week 4, teams prepped for their projects: determined graphic design needs, installed libraries and environments. We finished up the organization, decided on the judging system, and selected the trophy for the best project - a golden potato.

Venue

Co-up is a co-working space next to Kottbusser Tor in Berlin (and also hosting the BerlinJS and up.front meetups). It is a comfy place with all necessities within short reach: kitchen, bathrooms, small meeting rooms, etc. The main room – an open space with tables, chairs, and a lounge in one corner has a large window front.

Another nice thing at Co-up: You can open the door just by loading a particular website inside the local network. Clearly made by geeks – for geeks!

First Babbel Hackday Venue

People came in and immediately began jockeying for their favorite tables. Within half an hour, the room was crowded with Babbelonians hard at work on their projects. Teams were using the kitchen, or even unoccupied stretches of wall, as meeting spaces to align and plan.

Catering

Coffee, beer and soft drinks, sweets and fruits were all available. There were two massive pizza deliveries, courtesy of Julian, who brought them on his pick-up bike.

First Babbel Hackday Pick-Up Bike

Projects

We worked on 15 different projects spanning a wide range of ideas. My team involved 2 backend developers and a project manager tackling a new API to monitor learning activity. Other teams worked on

  • Visualizations of various Babbel information
  • New technologies and approaches (e.g. artificial intelligence) and programming languages (e.g. Ruby-Motion)
  • Extensions to the Babbel vocabulary
  • Games and gamification (e.g. arcade-like)
  • Connecting to hardware (Little Printer, synthesizer)
  • Tools for our toolchain (e.g. Pivotal Tracker printing)

12 hours was the limit to get something in a presentable state, and all the teams were racing to reach that goal. In the end they did: every team had something to show.

Presentation

At 10.15 p.m. we started presenting in random order. Most of us had some kind of drink in our hands - though the demonstrations were so exciting that I often forgot to take a sip! From my perspective, all of the demonstrations brought appealing things to the audience, and there was a lot of applause after each presentation. We saw useful tools for our work, funny demos full of laughter, and cool applications of new technology for both web and mobile platforms.

When the presentations were done, everyone had 3 votes to distribute to their favorite projects. It was quite hard for me to restrict my votes to only 3! The winner was the arcade-game-inspired typewriting trainer “Type Invaders” (19 votes). Notably, there were no losers: every team got at least 2 votes.

First Babbel Hackday Pick-Up Trophy

Give-Aways

While only the winning team, “Type Invaders”, took home the coveted Golden Potato, every participant walked away with an awesome 1stBabbelHackDay T-shirt.

First Babbel Hackday Pick-Up T-Shirt

Summary

Team feedback on the 1st Babbel Hackday was very positive. The organizers were happy to receive a great deal of appreciation and praise, including our favorite comment: “My best day at Babbel, by far!” We also got some useful advice for the next Hackday, so we know where to improve next time.

Our expectations were met. The day was fun, results were great, and some off-the-wall ideas were brought to light. Of course, it is hard to measure whether we succeeded in bringing people closer together, but I, for one, feel that there has been big progress.

Babbel’s management was presented with a summary of the Hackday results, which brought loud applause. Soon we will release a video with footage from the event. In the longer term, we are checking to see if any of the Hackday projects might feasibly turn into a cool new Babbel feature!

So in the end, yes, there will be another Babbel Hackday in 2014. The organizers will go over the feedback we have received and discuss improvements. We will probably need a larger venue, since our Engineering team keeps on growing. In any case, whatever approach we take for the next Hackday, we are already looking forward to it!

Twitter

Some coverage of the first Babbel Hackday on Twitter. #1stBabbelHackDay !

tl;dr

The 1st Babbel Hackday produced some very cool results and was a lot of fun.

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