BUILD FOR FUN @ Betfair FedEx Day

If you happen to pass by Betfair Romania’s office in October, there are high chances you’ll hear everybody talking about FedEx Day. You don’t really know what to expect. Are we ordering something? Is this some kind of special delivery that everybody’s excited about? Are we getting something cool?

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Just when I could picture the FedEx van in front of the office, things start getting clearer. Some posters show up around the office saying:” FedEx Day. 9-10 October” &”Watch your inbox”. OK…I.m sitting, working, waiting …and, hold it, I’ve got email. This is strange. It sounds as if we’re about to exchange work experiences with FedEx employees. It smells like a reality show and I wouldn’t be surprised if Donald Trump showed up at the door. Confused and impatient already, I do what I should have done from the very beginning. I simply ask.

In short, I find that FedEx day means 24h during which employees can work on whatever they want, not necessarily work related. The only rule is that at the end of the 24h, they have to deliver a working prototype of something that can be any product of their imagination and surprisingly, it doesn’t even have to be Betfair related. All right but still, where is the FedEx van, and why FedEx Day? Why not TNT Currier Day? Well, we’re actually talking about an analogy with FedEx Company who takes pride in delivering anything, anywhere in 24 hours. Sticking to the analogy, if you enter the FedEx Day competition, you have to deliver a product or service in 24h, so to say overnight and prove to your colleagues that the prototype works, do a demo as the programmers say.

The idea of organizing a FedEx Day was 1st implemented by the Australian Company Atlassian (if you like the wiki format – Confluence is their product). During the 18 FedEx Day editions in Atlassian, 550 projects were generated, out of which 47 had major impact on the company’s products. Having these statistics in mind, there’s no wonder that this concept of event has become so popular among software companies. Whether they call it FedEx Day or Hack Day, in time, several companies have chosen to implement this concept in their own fashion. Among them are: Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Dropbox, Flicker, Symantec, Spotify (actually, Twitter, Dropbox and Spotify have extended the 24h to one week, their hack days being already very popular).

Innovative ideas cannot come out of the blue, as long as your mind is busy with day to day tasks and requirements that you need to implement. At FedEx day, innovative, brilliant ideas occur because where there are no rules, anything is possible. Innovation is not about structuring a process for getting to a result, it’s about making room for us to think differently, look at things from different perspectives. More too often, companies, guided by their best intentions, hire brilliant people and then 100% of the time they keep their minds busy with all the projects that must be delivered. The downside of this is that there is no time left for innovation, for trying out new technologies, new tools, for exploring in depth various ideas. Making time for innovation is exactly what FedEx Day does. During FedEx Day, all day to day projects get suspended for 24 h and a “new ideas friendly environment” is created. Each employee is given the opportunity to work on something he’s interested, curious, or passionate about. It’s as if you were CTO or Product Director for a day.

Given the 24 h timeframe, FedEx Day starts on a Thursday at 3.00 p.m. and the actual work lasts until Friday at 3.00 p.m. After 30 minutes, the exact amount needed for teams to pack and deliver their prototypes, it’s show time. The demo session starts. Each team is given 10 minutes to shine, namely to show their prototype in action. Having a brilliant idea is a must, but being among the 3 teams who win at FedEx day, the prototype delivered in those 24h has to be functional. What matters at FedEX Day? There are three criteria taken into account: the technical complexity delivered, usefulness for the customer or the product value, and the innovation brought by the designed prototype.

How do things look at FedEx Day? Every year the face of the event is changing but what’s here to stay, year by year, is the idea of Build for Fun- that is take the boldest idea that comes to your mind and turn it into a working prototype. Last year, the office looked like a building site with: hammers, scaffolds, building blocks and a myriad of people all set on “building” something. This year, as you step into the building, it’s full of fluffy clouds that come into various shapes. They resemble to the multitude of ideas, out there, floating in the air; they could turn out to be brilliant ideas but that depends on how they come in to shape and the course you set them on. Close to FedEx Day, wherever you look you see groups of people making plans about what they will do at FedEx day and what team name should they choose (Betmen, Noctopos, Brilliant Beavers, Promo Chefs, Fantastic Four etc.). If it’s almost 2.30 pm, you feel how the entire building is shaking and 200 faces with shiny eyes show up – we’re getting the cool t-shirts, all FedEx branded. Some dress them up right away; others fold them carefully, to be perfect for the great moment – the demo session on Friday.

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At 3.00 pm the planning sessions start: stand up meetings, laughters and everybody is all set to work; some write code, others provide resources, do tests, everybody is caught up in FedEx projects.

You see how it’s getting dark, but nobody is leaving. At 11.00 pm, just when it starts to feel like everyone’s batteries is empty, the Red Bull, chocolate, and other “healthy” dishes show up. It’s 3.00 a.m. and there are still people in the office, FedExing. Though nobody keeps them there, they choose to stay. Next morning, at Breakfast you can see tired faces, but the adrenaline rush is still in the air. Around lunch, pressure gets higher and higher. Something is not working, we’re not going to finish on time, we ruined everything, a security certificate has just expired, and all Murphy’s laws seem to be true. At 3.00 pm, just like when we were students giving written exams, one can see the time has expired but there still is just one last sentence to write; there’s a last line of code that needs to be changed, a last test to run, something, just for another little bit; but it’s too late. All computer screens are “hacked” by a pop up saying time is up, start packing, delivery starts now. And if Escape on your keyboard will get you to ignore this, you can’t mute the bullhorn voice invading the office insisting that it’s delivery time.

Watching the delivered prototypes is a one of a kind show. Making your way to the demo session is quite a challenge; there is no room to move around. You can see all kind of objects carried on the stairs as they can’t fit in the elevator and excited faces. Finally the demos start. Questions, laughters, applauses, our colleagues keep amazing us with their brilliant, crazy ideas. It’s 8.00 pm already. Demo session is over. It’s the moment of truth. What will be the 3 winning projects this year? And who gets to decide this? Oh well, naturally, it’s the participants who get to decide. Given that you cannot rate your own project, only the projects of your colleagues, everyone is highly motivated to be as accurate and objective as possible in their assessment. The scores are tight but only 3 projects get to win. What can you win on FedEx Day? Besides the experience, and the valuable time spent with you team, there are always 3 special prizes. After announcing the winners, and celebrating, finally it’s weekend. What’s really interesting is that on Monday, Tuesday and quite a while after, people keep talking about FedEx Day and as they speak, their enthusiasm shows.

Everything sounds great. However I’ve still got a few questions on my mind; two questions actually. First, what’s left after FedEx Day so that the business is willing to somehow “waste” one full day of work for people to Build for Fun? And second, why does FedEx day have motivational value for employees?

For an answer, I’m being given statistics. After five editions of FedEx Day, we’ve ended with plenty of innovative ideas that wouldn’t have turned up if employees had to work on their day to day projects. Even if FedEx day means working on whatever you want, often employees choose to explore work related functionality. This way, bold ideas that seemed too extravagant to be even trialled and had poor chances to make it in the backlog, get to be put on the red carpet. During the years, at least two of the ideas prototyped at FedEx Days, were released in production, generating revenue, and others demonstrated the level of technical complexity of the projects that can be delivered by the teams (e.g. a Blackjack Live Dealer delivered in 24h).

When it comes about what makes employees be so much into FedEx Day, things become really interesting. Employees don’t enter the FedEx day to win the prizes at stake. They enter it because they can work on their idea – their baby, they grow, they learn something new, something of their particular interest, and the project they choose to work on is meaningful for them. All these matters are about intrinsic motivation, so there’s no wonder that FedEx Day works.

What’s left after FedEx day? Employees feel good, are energized, engaged, and the company is left with innovative ideas, and motivated employees to deliver them.

Here’s some video of the day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgQE01Xbwm0

/Camelia is a Learning and Development manager at Betfair Romania.

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