Posted by Ancestry Team on April 29, 2015 in Inside our Offices, Technical Management

Several years ago, we introduced FedEx Day at Ancestry: a 24-hour hackathon to build something fun & innovative, work with people other than your everyday team, and learn new technologies and skills. Participation is voluntary and we noticed that the number of people participating was starting to decline. We gathered feedback from the teams and made a few changes in February of this year in response.

First, the name “FedEx Day”, as noted in the post linked above, came from the report of Atlassian‘s 24-hour hackathon in Daniel Pink‘s book, Drive — essentially asking “What can you deliver in 24 hours?” Atlassian has since renamed their event “ShipIt Days”, and we have also changed the name of our event to “Hack Days”. Our format has shifted from a single 24-hour period to 2 full business days with our showcase on the afternoon of the second day. Teams are still welcome to stay as long as they like overnight, but we had learned that for many people, the 24-hour format was a deterrent. Another important point of feedback was that there were essentially two kinds of projects people wanted to work on: “just for fun” projects that may not have any connection to our business, and product ideas that they would like to see included in our product offerings. (It’s remarkable how many of our software developers are really passionate about our customers and the service Ancestry offers!) So we decided to create two corresponding prize categories, with fun awards (board games, trophies, bobbleheads, etc.) for the first and cash awards for the second.

So, what was the outcome of these changes? We had our highest participation ever, with over 30 teams showcasing their work (we even had to extend our showcase by half an hour to accommodate everyone). We also noticed that the quality of the projects was very high, with far fewer crashes, bugs, and “it worked on my machine 15 minutes ago!” (we think this may be because people actually slept at some point during the night).

Judges for our event include senior executives, including our CEO, Tim Sullivan, who were very impressed with the great ideas and execution.

The prize-winning projects included:

“Just For Fun” awards

Bug Award: Team Automagic — Michael Russo, Jed Burgon. This was an internal tool built by IT folks to help automate the configuration and installation of custom software packages for teams.

Most Evil: Roots of Evil — Ishpeck Tedjamulia, Peter Funk, Emanuel Blanco — a dungeon-like game that pits your battle skills against those of ancestors in your family tree!

Geek Award: Team Loosely Coupled — Robert Schultz, Alex Arkhipov, Chris Bradford — a proof-of concept for cloud deployed, automatically managed microservices running Node & Zookeeper on AWS

Most Entertaining: Team Rewarders — Ramya Rengarajan, Phani Kumar Balusu, Bonnie Bingham, Jason Bramble — award badges, merchandise, and discounts for activity on the site

Product-related cash awards

Honorable Mention: Team Awesome — Danny Darais, David Graham, Dave Menninger, George Gerard, Chris Adams, Jeff Alton, Kelv Cutler, Mike Smeltzer, Jeff Lord, John Mulholland — break through “brick walls” in your research by requesting help from other users, and offer your help to others for recognition on a leaderboard

3rd Place: 1940CEnsRecs2AMT — Roy Mill, Jeff Gardner — Give a face and a story to those in the census; connecting you from census-to-picture-to-story

2nd Place: Mobile — Gary Mangum, Brian Mullen, Jon Bott, Eric Williamson, Sam Gubler, Kory Garner, Keld Sperry, Bart Whiteley, Dan Lincoln, Sophal Mok — a new mobile app experience

1st Place: Eye of Sauron — Gaurav Shetti, Gann Bierner, Alex Kudinov, Max Bolotin, Hui Zheng — A guided search experience drawing on the characteristics of our data collections to help users narrow down searches

We were very pleased with the success of our first event this year incorporating these changes. We have heard from a number of teams that their good experience with Hack Days has started to influence how they work together as a team in their day-to-day work — an added benefit! Teams find themselves really energized by sitting and working together to brainstorm and solve problems without as much regard to roles & process. Some teams are incorporating short “Hack Days”-like sessions into their sprints to swarm on solving interesting problems in their current projects.

With the success of Hack Days, our next big challenge is to figure out how to make this scale as participation continues to grow.


  1. Bobbi Hoyt

    Have to love those IT minds. Anytime something can help to narrow down a search is appreciated by family searchers. Thanks

  2. Harriet Berry

    What fun! Yup, gotta love those busy minds, and congratulations to all participants!

    Am thinkin’ that “Roots of Evil” would make Thanksgiving Day a whole lot more fun in MY family…. Just sayin’.

  3. Jessica McManus

    I would think with the daily complaints I read about all the problems with using Ancestry products, they would be more focused on fixing those issues instead of playing around with things like this.

  4. Chuck Goehrig

    Just wondering how many of your programmers actually do their own family history research. From my perspective, it may point them to the frustrations all of us researchers have when a search turns up nothing but results which have no application to the problem at hand. Just sayin’.

  5. Jim Walton

    I agree with Chuck’s comment. As a retired programming instructor, if the objective was to present the user with marriage records, and the solution came in with more birth and death records than marriages, that project would get an F. Eye of Sauron deserved to win first place, but it should be implemented into the real world yesterday.

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