SoundCloud for Developers

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Backstage Blog December 9th, 2011 Hacker Time Open Source Stop! Hacker Time. By Alexander Grosse

At SoundCloud we like to invent new ideas. But we’re not adverse to implementing really great tried and tested ideas like the 20% time concept made famous by Google.

We’re calling it Hacker Time. We’re still very much in start-up mode so we’re keen to nurture the spirit of hacking. We’ve been testing out Hacker Time for a few weeks now and we’re excited about its potential, from industry-changing initiatives like “Are we playing yet” to unusual passion projects like the “Owl Octave”.

Why we’re doing it**

When I arrived at SoundCloud I gathered all the engineers and developers in a room and asked them what they wanted more of. This was one of the top requests:

Like every other fast-paced tech company out there, the everyday demands of development leave little time for pet projects or invention outside of the roadmap. But we shouldn’t let great ideas slip away: it’s wasteful of talent and it’s frustrating for developers themselves. Hacker Time is an attempt to keep both the ideas and the employees focused on making the product even better.

I don’t think there’s a single developer at SoundCloud who isn’t a sound creator. Or at least they quickly become one once they’ve joined. We’re a company of electronic music producers, acoustic musicians, field recordists and social sound fanatics. Of course we’re developing the product for 9 million people, but we’re also developing something we want to use ourselves.

Ironically we’re not trying to invent anything new by initiating Hacker Time. Aside from Google, we’ve been watching the Atlassian experiment and are taking a similar approach; we’ll start with a simple set of rules and adapt to what works best for us. Like Atlassian, we’ll be blogging about our experiences too.

Which projects are engineers allowed to work on?

We’ve compiled a list which is not meant to be restrictive but rather should be a guideline:

  • Pet features/improvements that never made it onto the roadmap
  • Apps based on the Soundcloud API
  • Hack Days
  • Anything for SoundCloudLabs.com
  • “this always annoyed me” bug-fixes or architectural improvements
  • Integration of some technology-du-jour with Soundcloud
  • Contributing to OSS used at Soundcloud
  • Other cool projects using SoundCloud
  • Conferences
  • Writing Blog Posts, Technical Articles

How will time be allocated?

The big decision is how to allocate time to these projects. We don’t want to cannibalize valuable product development time but we do want to give people as much freedom as possible,

There are lots of approaches out there – from reserving one day a week, accumulating time to set aside whole weeks or handling that time like vacation. We’ve decided to put the decision-making in the hands of each team, allowing them to allocate Hacker Time according to each team’s workstyle. It’s an experiment, and something we’ll be reviewing in the early stages.

Demo it!

We’re pretty disciplined about demoing work to the whole company. Hacker Time projects will be included in the demos (which happen every 2 weeks at SoundCloud), giving developers a chance to showcase their projects and sparking interest in their hacks from everyone in the organization.

Watch this blog for further reports!

Many thanks to

Atlassian for blogging about their experiences

Simon Stewart from Google

Jim Webber from Neo4J

Jan Lehnhardt from Couchbase

Stefan Roock from it-agile

for sharing their experiences with us.