Hack Days at Mendeley: What? Why? How?

Official hack day “disorganizer” says they're great for sparking creativity

The Mendeley team, with Software Engineer Carles Pina at left, gathers to discuss ideas before a Hack Day starts."Next Friday is Hack Day!" someone says.

"What's that?" someone new at Mendeley might well ask.

To me, hack days are a programmer's dream. A day when a "hacker" can do whatever he or she is inspired to do.

Do you want to map out the researchers who are using Mendeley all over the world in real time? Go ahead, see if you can use the Google Maps API to do that.

Ever wondered how your library of academic documents would sound like if translated into music? Well, now might just be a good time to find out.


Mendeley Hack Day in a nutshell

  • All hackers gather in the morning to share their ideas for the day.
  • People team up to help each other, using their complementary skills.
  • The objectives are adjusted and the hacking starts officially.
  • At lunchtime we refuel with plenty of pizza.
  • By late afternoon we gather again to show off the results.

On a hack day, anything is possible.

The mass media tends to confuse hackers with crackers, and there are many definitions of hacker, but to me the one that best describes what we do at Mendeley is that of the Jargon Dictionary:

Hacker – One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.

This opportunity really helps to keep employees motivated because we all have our own ideas that we want to experiment with, but it's not easy to find time during a busy working day, with the normal pipeline to deliver on. Hack days give us a chance to learn new technologies, make a proof of concept, practice our teaching skills, and compare notes with our colleagues on what might be some really cool projects and interesting future product developments.

The central idea of these hack days is to give people space to develop their creativity and pursue their own ideas. The only limit to that is your imagination. We also welcome collaboration and new ideas from other teams. Recently we had a great joint hack day with people from various Elsevier teams.

If you have any ideas and suggestions you think we should pursue during a future hack day, let us know. It might happen!

Some interesting hacks

Mendeley Desktop Syncs from Mendeley on Vimeo.

  • Research Collaboration Map. This started out as a hack, but ended up in an international collaboration between two members of the Mendeley team and a researcher at the University of Graz.
  • Mendeley toilet usage. We installed sensors in the bathroom locks and gathered information about usage, such as time spent, frequency, etc. All results were of course anonymized.
  • Programming for non-programmers. Hack days are also about sharing knowledge and learning something new, so we prepared an intensive 1-day introduction to programming for those in the Mendeley team who were from a non-technical background.
  • Experimenting with new technologies. Many times we come across a new language or concept where we don't have a clear use for implementing it straight away, so we can "play" with it during a hack day, and this often makes people come up with new ideas on how it could be useful for Mendeley.
  • API Mashup. One of the great things about Mendeley is that it has an open API, which means people can develop apps on top of our platform. On hack days we often look at other open APIs and see how they can integrate with Mendeley in new interesting ways.


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Carles PinaCarles Pina is a Software Engineer at Mendeley, the company that created the Mendeley research collaboration platform and workflow tool and was acquired by Elsevier in April 2013. He works on the Mendeley Desktop team and also helps organizing the hack days. He is based in Mendeley's London office.

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