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Apartment List Hack Week 2019

By: Angelina Bader
September 24, 2019

Hack Week at Apartment List

It’s Hack Week at Apartment List and the A-List hive is busy and bustling, hacking away at projects that will make the lives of renters, clients, and fellow coworkers simpler.

Hack Week lets A-Listers work on projects proposed by them and their peers. Employees can sign up to be on a team for one project that interests them. At the end of the week, teams are eligible to win prizes in eight different categories. Teams are supposed to be as diverse as possible. More points are awarded if everyone on the Hackathon group is from a different internal team.

Throughout the week there are fun games, competitions, and activities for everyone to partake in. Participation is also worth extra points for those who are on a Hack Week team.

Fast forward, and the winners have been announced. The team known as "Freshmen Class" has won the Best Hack for A-Listers category. Let’s take a look at the Apartment List tradition through their eyes.

We interviewed Jeffrey and Lei to learn more about their experience and find out what the freshmen of Apartment List thought of the Hackathon.

Left to right: Austin - Software Engineer (Connections), Jeffrey - Software Engineer (Supply),Lei - Data Analyst (Growth), Yuki - Software Engineer (Demand), Sahil - Lead Software Engineer (Platforms)

How did you come together?

Jeffrey: We chose to work together because four out of five us had started working around the same time, around three months ago, and were interested in the same project. That's where our name comes from, too - Freshmen Class.

What was your project about?

Lei: Running experiments is the most frequently used method to optimize user experience nowadays. However, we currently do not have a tool to manage our experiments. We cannot easily query historical experiments to pinpoint product changes or quickly reference historical key learnings to design new case studies. Our project, Alchemist, is an internal experiment viewing and editing UI that allows the user to easily query past experiments, see all changes made to a specific case, create new and make updates to existing experiments. It provides employees in areas of research, development, analytics, and the business overall with a centralized place to query historical experiments and manage or monitor current ones. We, as a company, benefit from having such a database, because it will allow us to move faster with experimental product changes and provide users with a better experience.

Where did the idea for your project come from?

Lei: As a data analyst, I often need to run experiments and iterate to optimize our product. It takes a tremendous effort to retrieve historical experimental data and locate product changes. This project solves my pain point and improves efficiency.

Lei is an analyst so it makes sense why he signed up for this particular project. Jeffrey, what attracted you to Alchemist?

Jeffrey: I initially chose the project based on the people that came together to work on this specific team. The great thing about Apartment List is that it’s never just about the product, but also about the people. I was interested in working with the group we pulled together from different engineering teams and departments. While spending time figuring out the product, things really came together for me and I became curious about seeing the final product, as well.

Jeffrey and Lei presenting Alchemist to fellow A-Listers

Were there hiccups on the road?

Lei: I had the most difficulty defining the scope of the project. We had to make sure that the project balanced out needs from both the engineering and the analytics side. When running an experiment, engineers need to be sure they are allocating users correctly. Analysts need to know what the allocated users are doing in a given experiment. I was the team's Project Manager, and making sure that both sides were receiving the necessary feedback was a tough balancing act for me.

Another hardship for me was finding a way to build the Hack Week project that would be helpful for engineers and analysts. It was something of importance to the team from the start, but it also proved to be difficult. We wanted users from different departments in the company to get value out of the tool. Eventually, we figured it out, but the road to the finish line was long.

Jefferey: Personally, learning a new language, Elixir, proved to be more difficult than I had expected. It really slowed me down personally because there are specific nuances I was not familiar with. I was very confident that we could finish all the back end in two to three days, but it ended up taking more than four days.

Sticker badges for each challenge offered during Hack Week

Is there anything special about Hack Week that helped you get through these difficulties?

Lei: Teamwork! I was able to work with people from different teams and understand their perspective towards the same issue. Also, having others to lean on when my work was taking longer than expected was really helpful.

Another strong point was transparency, I surveyed at least one person from each team to understand what their pain points are when doing experiment-related work. Everyone was very open to helping solve the problem.

What stood out to you about your Hack Week experience?

Jeffrey: Definitely communication, not just the fact that it was so smooth within the team that was made up of people from different company factions, but also across the board. You could tell that everyone really came together to make this happen. Everyone was dedicated to their projects, but also the organizers - our fellow A-Listers - gave it their all. Gabby, one of our fellow engineers, organized fun games throughout the week to engage everyone and bring team members closer together. The science fair-style final presentation also rocked! We were able to get to know every team’s hack closely and experience the results in real time.

A-Listers participating in VR games to gain extra points for their teams

What was the most nagging part? What was your favorite part of the week?

Lei: It was discouraging when we encountered blockers, such as needing to learn a new programming language or figuring out the UI design. However, I really liked working with people from other teams and learning new skills outside of my daily job.

Jeffrey: The nagging part was that we only had one week, whereas our vision for the project could have taken up three or four weeks. We wanted to build out more features but with the time constraint we scaled back to a manageable amount.

My favorite part of the week was getting to work with coworkers that I don’t normally get a chance to. Our team was made up of engineers from all different teams and data analysts. I don’t work closely with any of them on a daily basis.

What did you learn?

Lei: I got to experience project management. I outlined the project, tracked its progress, and tried my best to resolve blockers as we went. I feel like I also became a better data analyst to serve a broader audience

Jeffrey: I learned how to set reasonable expectations and adhering to the 80/20 rule. Sometimes it is better to scale back expectations for projects, especially those that are on a tight timeline. It may be painful, but also so worth it. It was much nicer to finish what we expected to finish rather than feel bad we did not get a chance to add every feature.

What could other engineers learn from your experience?

Lei: I think it is important for engineers and analysts to remember that it is important to work together in order to better understand the problems we are trying to solve. Remember, to encourage each other to be more creative and bold.

Jeffrey: Challenging yourself is a great way to grow as a developer. I didn’t know anything about Elixir and it was intimidating to have to build out features in something new, but I was able to impress myself with what I could do. It made me curious as to what other things I could learn and surprise myself with.

A-Listers enjoying snacks and treats during Hack Week

What could a (non-engineer) reader learn from your experience?

Lei: Encourage cross-team functional projects and transparency in your teams. Go after your pain points and work together to create solutions to solve issues that may be on the table. You’ll be glad you did.

Why is it important to host Hack Week?

Jeffrey: I’d say that work is work, but it’s much better if you’re friends with your coworkers. During regular work hours, it might be hard to get to know the people in your office, but with events like the Hack Week allow for the creation of potential product features that could be pushed to the entire customer audience. They allow creativity to think out of the box and fosters a great company culture and team building. The Mark Twain quote “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life” should also include finding a job you enjoy going to.

As the events of Hack Week wrap up, the team are already brainstorming things they might be interested in working on next year. If you were a part of the Apartment List, what would be your project? Let us know by tweeting @ApartmentList.

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