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October 6, 2006 / jnolen

After Yahoo! Hack Day

Yahoo! Hack Day was so worth the trip. The weekend could not have gone any better. I still can't believe that the folks at Yahoo Developer Relations were able to pull this off. I honestly never expected the event to be this good, or this much fun.


The first thing worthy of mention was the wifi; it was unbelievably good. Yahoo managed to provide access for three hundred of the most internet-addicted people on the planet without a hiccup. Everyone got an individualized password when they showed up. According to Jeremy Zawodny, the Yahoo IT staff took this event as a personal challenge. It seems that plenty of Yahoos had been at the Future of Web Apps two weeks prior, where miserable wifi access was the one universal complaint of an otherwise excellent show. Yahoo learned that lesson well. And their IT staff rose the the challenge (in a matter of hours, I heard). They managed to throw up an parallel network using forty of the portable wifi access points that Yahoo keeps on hand in case of a network outage. The wifi network was then linked to Yahoo's internet backbone over a gigabit connection. The whole weekend I had solid, fast net access everywhere I went.


Once you've got the essentials (wifi) down, it's time to start thinking about the content of the event. The first day was taken up largely with talks, sessions and tutorials about various Yahoo technologies. I attended several, but I honestly didn't get a great deal out of them. I had already heard or read most of what I saw presented. And I really just wanted to start coding. But what it allowed me to do was put a face with the technologies I was interested in using. Which came in handy shortly and is what gave Hack Day its true value.

Because the sessions weren't really the remarkable thing about Hack Day; far from it. Instead, it was the access. The folk giving the lectures were generally the same people who wrote the code they were talking about. And unlike a standard tech conference, they didn't disappear after their talk. Instead, they all just hung around for the next twenty four hours, drinking beer and answering questions. There was a help desk, where you could walk up and say, "I have a question about the flickr API." And they would answer, "Well, Cal Henderson, the architect of Flickr is right over here. He can help you!." That was just amazing.

[Read about what I built after the jump.]


I spent the hacking portion of the weekend working on features for WishRadar. I started with two goals. First, I wanted to try and set up some sites statistics for our newly launched service: basic stuff like number of signups per day, &c. It’s funny how you don’t really worry about that stuff when you’re trying to launch a site, but about 60 seconds afterwards you realize how badly you need it. The other idea I had was to use the YUI CSS to simplify WishRadar’s CSS.

I started on the statistics stuff during one of the afternoon sessions and had it finished before the concert. I started on the CSS integration after the concert and had it finished before midnight. And that left a whole lot of time for hacking. I suppose I could have gone to sleep, but that seemed to violate the whole spirit of the event.

Since it was Yahoo’s event, after all, I decided to investigate their Shopping API as another source of price data for WishRadar. All we really need in an API is the ability to query by UPC/ISBN and have it return the lowest available price. It turned out that Yahoo’s Shopping API did both. So I worked on that from midnight until three the following afternoon (with a few hours nap in the early morning) and managed to finish up just in time for the presentations.

Luckily, I was able to use our existing Amazon API code as a template for querying the Yahoo API. After that, it was just parsing Yahoo’s XML and hooking the polling code to the Amazon update schedule. The rest was basic Rails stuff. (Can I tell you how much fun I’m having with Rails programming? I had a smile on my face all night as things just fell into place. I’ve probably got another whole blog post coming about that.)

So at the end of Saturday, WishRadar was able to query Yahoo Shopping price data at the same time it queried Amazon. It also notified you if the Yahoo price hit your target. And it sends you the Yahoo price when you queried via SMS. In practice, though, it seems that the Yahoo price is very seldom cheaper than Amazon. But I guess that’s not really our problem.

None of that is live on the site yet. I’m going to spend this weekend cleaning things up and writing some tests, so hopefully we’ll see Yahoo data live next week. After seeing how easy this integration was, it makes me very excited to go out and find other sources of price data to add in as well.


One of the other highlights for me was meeting the team. I’ve come to depend on their service far more than I ever expected. And getting to interact with them over their recent upgrade was really fun for me, too. (Did you notice that they implemented some of the changes I suggested? That’s so cool!) So meeting Andy, Leonard, and Gordon was a blast — they seemed like great guys. And it turns out that they use Atlassian software to run their development! I hope they can continue to improve Upcoming as much as they’ve done the last few months. It’s been great to see them deal with the acquisition and keep moving forward at a startup’s pace.


Beck was cool. Puppets, dude.


Now, Yahoo is still a big company, and I’m sure there they still exhibit plenty of boneheadedness and backward thinking in areas. But none of that was in evidence this weekend. Everything worked in as smoothly as anyone could have hoped. The people planning and staffing (all volunteers) the event definitely got it. They understood the community, and they understood how to work with the community: give us tools and get out of the way.

Even if every single one of Yahoo’s Web 2.0 acquisitions (Flickr, Delicious, Upcoming, & al.) turns out to be a financial wash, Yahoo will still have gotten more than its money’s worth in the incredibly smart people they hired. These folks have the potential to remake Yahoo from the inside. And the fact that David Filo was at Hack Day for much of the weekend (wandering the halls at midnight, judging the contest Saturday afternoon) makes me think that he recognizes how important this is for the company. Yahoo needs to be a great technology company, not a second-rate media company, no matter what the folks in Santa Monica may think.

Bottom line, I had a blast, Beck was awesome, I built something useful with Yahoo stuff, and I have a much higher opinion of Yahoo and their technology than I did before the weekend started. I think you can call that a success.


  1. Chad Dickerson / Oct 6 2006 6:31 am

    Thanks for the review — we had a GREAT time putting it together, so the positive feedback is really gratifying. Good meeting you, and see you at Yahoo! Hack Day 2007!

  2. Scott Farquhar / Oct 6 2006 6:32 am

    Great write-up! I wish that I could have made it.

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