When most people think of Hackweek, what typically comes to mind are images of wild-eyed developers, huddled up in rooms for days, poring over hundreds of lines of code and dozens of cups of coffee. We imagine these teams toasting in celebration, being inspired and energized by what they discover and create, bonded in feelings of camaraderie, reveling in the satisfaction that comes from deep focus and unwavering hard work. In a typical year, this is what Hackweek is - an opportunity for Unity employees from every corner of the globe to unite under one sky and one time zone and to hack through the many challenges and opportunities we see facing our company.
But we know that this year has been anything but typical.
“With everything going on in the world, it’s important that we keep tradition alive,” said Chief Product Officer, Brett Bibby. “Hackweek has positive energy associated with it, and we want it to provide an opportunity for people to remember and reconnect with the mission of the company, to reconnect with their personal mission and goals, and ultimately, to remember that they are agents for change in the world.”
Honoring the Hackweek tradition was a priority for Unity, so we forged on, committed to making it happen, one way or another.
Signups went out, and the official call to Hackweek was resolutely announced with only two certainties - it would be virtual, and we would do our best to pull it off. What came following this announcement was a surprise and a true delight.
Even though there would be no travel, no promise of the long-missed face-time with our colleagues, we saw more participation in Hackweek than ever before. This year, Hackweek had a total of 1,039 participants, 217 active ideas registered on kickoff day, 961 attendees for the global kickoff calls, and 1,489 for the final viewing. In terms of percentage, and when compared to previous years, these numbers were truly impressive. However, what was even more impressive than the participation numbers was how Unity employees carried out Hackweek - how they found different ways to connect and collaborate, how they made it their own, and how they created hundreds of brilliant ideas together.
One of the most liberating things about Hackweek is the fact that when you sign up, you know you can choose to work on anything you want. Every participant has the freedom to come up with their own project and carry it through as they see fit. Most years, we see a myriad of ultra-creative projects geared toward innovating Unity in different ways. This year the spirit of innovation remained strong, but a quick glance through the idea registry will show you that what was on most people’s minds wasn’t necessarily revolution, but evolution.
Many of the projects from Hackweek were motivated by solving practical problems. Bibby noted how “This was a really pragmatic year. It was about evolving our knowledge and skill, improving our understanding of the products that we make, listening to feedback from the community and evolving quality of life features that have a big impact on users.”
Senior Product Marketing Lead, Thomas Krogh-Jacobsen, whose team worked on a project called Level Up Our Learning Content, which focused on improving various Education features, noted that “Caring about users was a central theme for many of the projects this year. When you look at why people want to work on certain things, you can see that many of these ideas were inspired by some kind of empathy. Many people commented on how they recalled receiving feedback on a pain point from a user, and they wanted to solve that problem, to remove that pain point.”
His team’s project focused on improving the experience for first-time users, ensuring that Unity’s educational content is supported by the latest version of Unity. “We asked ourselves how we could improve the user journey and the onboarding experience in general. It wasn’t about building a new feature, but how we can make our current features better.”
The pragmatic spirit of improving user experience across the board was also present in the way ideas for projects came together and how they were executed. Core Documentation Lead, Jo Petty, worked on a project titled, Attack the API Docs. “Usually Hackweek is a great moment to address the documentation because while the documentation team regularly fixes documentation bugs, at Hackweek we have so many engaged developers in one room, looking to contribute to projects that are a little bit different from their every day,” said Petty.
“I knew that this year, with everyone working remotely, that this project would appeal to anyone who wanted to join a casual project they could fit around their schedules. This project was important because our users instantly see the benefits of the fixes to the documentation, and we have dedicated time with developers who know the subject matter inside out. I think that we managed to adapt to the remoteness of Hackweek easily, and built up a good rapport on Slack to collaborate and get some of our documentation fixed.”
While the majority of the projects did focus on improving quality of life features and solving practical problems for users, Hackweek wasn’t without its fun. Head of Global Evangelism Content, Mike Geig, led a Bootcamp that taught game-building to non-technical employees. Members of the Evangelism team play a huge role in facilitating Hackweek, often sacrificing their own dream Hackweek projects in order to help other Unity employees create their own. This is the second year Unity has invited non-technical employees to Hackweek, and it was here that Unity saw some of its most unique content. With 245 signups and 119 completed games, the Bootcamp’s participation exploded.
“My goal was to have people really experience what it was like to be an indie developer. Folks in accounting and HR and legal and all these other roles - have them say ‘ah, this is why people make games, this is what they actually experience!’,” said Geig. Not only did participation numbers skyrocket, it was through game building that Unity employees discovered just how much fun a virtual Hackweek could be. “Because it was virtual, a lot of people actually got to involve their families and partners at home in the game building process.”
Senior Technical Producer for R&D Graphics, Tricia McIntosh, created a game that featured her own daughter’s singing voice. “My daughter being six years old is just now starting to be interested in what I do for work. She has always known I "work on games" but me working at home with her now gives her more insight into what I do every day, which is a silver lining on this whole situation, “ said McIntosh.
“I was initially bummed that I wouldn't be traveling to participate in Hackweek this year but I found it was actually really enjoyable to do Hackweek at home with her, something I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. She helped me think of an idea for the game, and then got straight to work drawing pictures for me to illustrate her concept… she was often right over my shoulder as I worked on coding and building the game each day, she helped me with the title screen and all the audio for the game. Even now weeks later, she is still inspired to create new game designs and wants me to help her learn to code it herself.”
McIntosh noted how Unity made it all “very approachable” and was happy that “Unity has provided us both the opportunity to make a game so easily.”
Despite this being the first virtual Hackweek at Unity, and despite all the uncertainties and challenges we faced, Unity saw a whopping 195 videos of completed projects. This wasn’t a typical year, and these weren’t typical results. Regardless of the challenges that came along with being physically distant, the way Unity employees executed Hackweek is a testament to just how well we really do work together, and how dedicated we are as a company to teaching, learning, inspiring, and creating with one another.
When asked how he felt about the outcome of Hackweek, Bibby said, “I’m most proud how Hackweek has grown to include the entire company. It has expanded to all departments and functions. I’m proud and encouraged at the enthusiasm that everybody has to learn our own products, to ‘eat our own dog food’, to really be fearless and go in and understand what users are saying and experience the joy and the pain. It’s extremely rewarding for us and ultimately benefits our users.”
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