The Babbel Blog

language learning in the digital age

Inside Babbel: Hack Day 5

Posted on May 31, 2016 by

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Every few months, Babbel’s finest minds team up to face one another in an off-site battle of the hacks. The aim is simply to make the best learning tool they possibly can in just one day. I recently joined the Hack Day’s fifth iteration to report back from the front lines.

Within the sticky-note plastered glass walls of Babbel’s engineering department, there are strict processes and protocols for everything. There has to be — that’s part and parcel of building and maintaining a market-leading language learning app. More than a million people are counting on these guys and girls not to screw up, after all.
Our beloved boffins aren’t just tasked with the day-to-day business of making sure everything works as advertised, however: they’re also our primary source of ideas and innovations. That means, just once in a while, it’s good to let them out of those literal and figurative walls — to give them the right space for the just-so-crazy-it-might-work stuff that would normally be too dangerous to try. And since this is Berlin, that space better have an ample supply of Club Mate, pizza and beer.
For unrelated and entirely professional reasons, then, I decided to join them for the fifth Babbel Hack Day.

Nice idea — but what’s it for?

“We let people build their own teams and work on their own projects, in whichever way they want to work,” Giulia Raffaello tells me. She’s the brains behind today, and it’s her job to make sure everything runs smoothly.
“It’s kind of a team-building event, crossed with a mood-boosting initiative — but it’s also really great for the company,” she says. “Babbel directly benefits from the ideas that people generate here: each one could potentially make it into the product or be used elsewhere in the business. For example, we now have an online library system for managing our bookshelves, and a screen in the corridor that shows live stats about the company and the product — those were hacks.”
Despite the techie nature of many of the projects, Hack Day isn’t just for engineers, as Giulia explains: “When someone in the company has a project they want to work on, they put it on an internal web page and anyone else is free to say ‘Hey, I like your idea — can I join?’”

What actually happens?

The day runs as follows: the hackers arrive in the morning at an out-of-office space somewhere in Berlin — this time it’s Colonia Nova in Neukölln. Everyone finds their workspace, plugs in and gets ready for the day (by drinking lots of coffee, of course). Then the clock starts. There’s a strict ten-hour limit, and the timer is projected on the wall for all to see. The pace is frenetic, at least until the pizza arrives. Despite the sheer square-footage of cheese1 and tomato-based goodness on offer, it doesn’t last long. Back to work.
The end of the day is the best bit. As the clock ticks down, the pace ramps up — along with the noise and the mate consumption. This is around the time that the rest of the company starts to filter in for the evening’s presentations (again, the free beer is just a bonus).
Each team, either having completed their project or been stopped in their tracks, then presents the day’s accomplishments. Without speaking, that is — we don’t like to make things too easy. Without giving away any of our big ideas, I can tell you that there was a whole lot of variety on offer: hardware, artificial intelligence, musical instruments, role-playing games and even a mischievous fox.
Which idea won? That, I can’t tell you.
Want to join us for Hack Day 6? Check our open positions.

Hack day by the numbers

100 participants
5 departments
15 projects
25 m2 of pizza
10 kg of lasagne
60 L of mate
20 crates of beer
1 Yes, we have vegan options too.