Why unpaid corporate hack days are a bad idea

There has been a lot of discussion about corporate hack days, prompted by the Unilever hack day called Re.Hack with the tagline “reinventing Commerce”.

I know people working for design agencies who do spec (speculative) work. It’s risky and disheartening, but impossible to avoid for some companies. One person I spoke to a long time ago used to spend two thirds of their time doing spec work, and win only a third of the contracts. Not a desirable position to be in if you have several employees.

For a freelancer, attending a two day event is not as damaging as putting a whole agency on a project for a week, but that time still costs money in missed opportunities.

I’ve heard of day rates in tech from as low as £200 per day to well over £1500. Two days not working for other clients works out at anything between £400 and £3000+. That’s not including any time spent working in the evening or even through the night.

3beards, the organisers of Re.Hack pointed out in their blog post that intellectual property rights remain with the participants, they all have chances to win prizes, and potentially a commercial contract with Unilever. I don’t think this is enough: simply retaining ownership of what you produce is not adequate payment for consultancy services. Nor is a chance to win a Fitbit.

I don’t mean to pick on this one event, it’s far from the worst I’ve seen, but it’s a good recent example of a multinational corporation either being misguided or downright cynical in their approach to generating new ideas for as little as possible.

The Cadbury Olympic hack day springs to mind. It generated so much vocal criticism that the rules of the event were changed to highlight the benefits of participation, mainly through stipulating what prizes could be won and that participants would retain the IP.

And can you remember the one where you had to pay cash money (i.e. buy a ticket) to do some free work for McDonald’s (event is now password protected)?

Big companies often cite the freshness of the ideas coming from hack days as the primary reason for hosting one, and organising that kind of event is a perfectly valid way to explore some challenges. However, there’s no reason for these events to be exploitative to achieve their aims.

One approach is to organise internal hack days, where people who already have domain knowledge, or people from other departments, can use their strengths to bring about new ways of thinking. They don’t have to work for free, you keep all the IP, and your costs are low. There are additional benefits: tightening up of existing internal networks, creation of new ones, generation of new interests and enthusiasm, and the opportunity to try out and learn new things. All those benefits are retained within the organisation. It’s such a successful model that even the government organises events like that.

Another one is simply paying people for their time. The BBC runs an event called Connected Studio (which I have participated in) where groups are given a subject area. Then they have some time to develop and pitch ideas. Interesting ones may be further developed in conjunction with the BBC and potentially commissioned. All participants are paid a fixed day rate for their work.

I have been to hack days of both kinds, and some that mixed the two approaches: bringing in professionals to an internal hack day can bring some new ideas and approaches and encourage collaboration. I have a very positive view of what was accomplished during the events that I have attended.

But organising a hack day is not the only way to get similar results. You can for example make multiple small commissions. When the Royal Shakespeare Theatre wanted to see lots of small projects developed for the World Shakespeare Festival they made a number of tiny commissions from technologists, artists and students. Instead of hosting a single event, the projects were developed over a longer time and provided many interesting ways to think about Shakespeare’s work and influence. A similar approach is something Thayer Prime suggests in her blog post too:

As well as paid hack days, companies/brands could consider another professional alternative: do prototyping days with developers who can create apps and products for you in quick time frames at relatively low cost compared to fully developed projects, so you can fail fast on stuff you don’t like and move forward with the innovations you like.

Because there are so many ways to both spend little money and source a variety of ideas, it is really disappointing when companies think they can get away with soliciting work for a promise of a chance to win something, exposure, and so on. For someone like Unilever, who made 5.3bn€ profit just last year, it smacks of cynical opportunism. They clearly value the work so little that they are unwilling to commit to paying a fair price for it. Either that or it has become normal to assume that developers have so much spare time and expertise that they will produce original ideas (or, as the Unilever event page puts it, “Ideas need to be 100% original and not based on existing products”) for some beers and pizza. I doubt the event hosts, organisers and judges are working for the same remuneration.

Many people in the industry are passionate about things they care about to the extent that they will give up their weekends to tackle some challenges, or think about problems and possible solutions, and I’m not criticising that. NHS Hackdays regularly bring together people who want to help solve real problems faced by the health system. There are others that often attracti large numbers of participants, dealing with questions of privacy, civic involvement, communication of complex issues, collaboratively learning something, making music, and so on. Participants are unpaid, but they get some clear value out of those events. Meeting new people, learning new things, thinking about challenges that interest them. These are all great motivations, as long as they are not exploited by for-profit companies to generate more value for their shareholders, at the cost of participants’ expertise and spare time.