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Saturday, April 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft "Hack Day" is creative play at work

Seattle Times technology reporter

A 700-pound ice sculpture of a monster truck crushing a computer? Check.

Trucker hats and laptops for everyone? Check.

Beer and a nacho bar? Of course.

And that's how a group of 75 Microsoft developers set out Thursday to brainstorm at an internal event called "Hack Day."

The topic of the day was Windows Live — a collection of online services being built to compete with Google and Yahoo! The idea is that pulling developers away from their routines and giving them beer, laptops and an empty cafeteria might inspire their creativity.

Crunch time is pretty much all the time in the Windows Live group these days. New Web search or instant-messaging features come out in weeks, not years, as companies step up the pace to outdo each other. And unusual deadlines call for unusual measures, which is how Hack Day came to be.

Thursday was the third Hack Day hosted by Windows Live and the Idea Factory — an informal Microsoft project encouraging developers to swap ideas. Previous Hack Days centered on the Spaces blogging service and minisoftware programs, and some of the ideas generated there went live within weeks.

Hack Day ran for six hours in a Microsoft cafeteria and was open to anyone at the company.

In keeping with the monster-truck theme, the cafeteria was decorated with remote-controlled trucks and participants wore T-shirts that read, "Keep on Hackin.' " Everyone got to use a laptop computer for the day and listened to presentations from seven product units within Windows Live. Then they broke into groups and started coding.

"We knew lots of people had cool ideas because they talk about them all the time in the hallways," said Jennifer Johnston, a senior product manager. "They just need an outlet."

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"Lord of the Rings" DVD box sets and other prizes were awarded for the best ideas, and at the end a drawing was held for an Xbox 360 system.

Hack Day directly addresses a question that large tech companies struggle with. How to encourage employees to think big? How do you bring out the "what if?"

Google requires engineers to spend 20 percent of their time working on pet projects. Microsoft and Yahoo! don't have such a structured time allocation, but attempt to motivate developers in other ways.

Windows Live is planning a Hack Day every quarter. Winning ideas from Thursday's event included a miniprogram that looks up garage-sale listings and plotted a driving route using an online map. Another winner sends a customized reply through Windows Live Messenger when a person isn't available.

One analyst, Michael Cherry with Directions on Microsoft, said that Microsoft and other companies have no shortage of ideas. They should be spending more time turning those ideas into high-quality, useful software. Google Earth, the three-dimensional mapping program, looks impressive, he said, but it should be giving good and clear directions as well.

"That's what I'm still kind of looking to see," he said. "Once we get past the, 'Gee that's cool, wow that works,' is it a program I'm going to use on an ongoing basis?"

Some developers who attended Hack Day said they planned to bring some of the event's ideas back to their own product groups.

The day "is a great opportunity to build some excitement," said Zachary Gutt, a program manager with Windows Live Search. "There's a lot of things that the team hasn't thought of yet or gotten to yet."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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