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FedEx day: Build for fun

Book open Reading time: 7 mins

If you happen to pass by Betfair's Romanian 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 is excited about? Are we getting something cool?

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. 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 refers to 24 hours during which employees can work on whatever they want, not necessarily work related. The only rule is that at the end of the 24 hours, they have to deliver a working prototype of 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 Courier Day? Well, we’re actually talking about an analogy with FedEx who take 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 24 hours, stay overnight if necessary in order to prove to your colleagues that the prototype works, to 'do a demo' as the programmers say.

"Innovative ideas cannot come out of the blue, at FedEx day, innovative, brilliant ideas occur because there are no rules"

The idea of organizing a FedEx Day was first 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 a 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 amongst 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. Amongst them - Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Dropbox, Flicker, Symantec, Spotify (actually, Twitter, Dropbox and Spotify have extended the 24 hour period to one week, as their hack days have already proved very popular and very productive). 

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 there are no rules, anything is possible. Innovation is not about structuring a process to achieve a result. It's about making room for us to think differently and look at things from different perspectives. All too often, companies are guided by their best intentions and hire brilliant people, only to then ensure that 100% of their time and brain space is 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 new  ideas. Making time for innovation is exactly what FedEx Day does. During FedEx Day, all day to day projects get suspended for 24 hours 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.

"Each employee is given the opportunity to work on something they're interested, curious, or passionate about"

Given the timeframe, FedEx Day starts on a Thursday at 3pm and lasts until Friday at 3pm. After 30 minutes, the exact amount needed for teams to pack and deliver their prototypes, it’s show time, and 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 in order to be amongst the three teams who win, the prototype also has to be functional. What matters at FedEX Day? There are three criteria taken into account: the technical complexity delivered, the usefulness for the customer or the product value, and the innovation delivered through 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 to 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 in various shapes. They resemble 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 2.30pm, you can feel how the entire building is shaking as 200 faces with shiny eyes show up. And to top it off, we’re getting cool FedEx branded t-shirts. Some dress up right away, others fold them carefully, to be perfect for the great moment – the demo session on Friday.

At 3pm the planning sessions start: stand up meetings, laughter and everybody is set to work. Some write code, others provide resources, some do tests: everybody is caught up in FedEx projects.

You notice it’s getting dark, but nobody is leaving. At 11pm, just when it starts to feel like everyone’s batteries are empty, the Red Bull, chocolate, and other “healthy” dishes show up. It’s 3am and there are still people in the office, "FedExing". Although nobody keeps them there, they choose to stay. The 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 3pm, just like when we were students doing written exams, one can see the time has expired but there is still just one last sentence to write, one 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.

"Our colleagues keep amazing us with their brilliant, crazy ideas"

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, laughter, applause. Our colleagues keep amazing us with their brilliant, crazy ideas. It’s 8pm already - the demo session is over. It’s the moment of truth. What will be the three 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 the 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 achieved through FedEx Day that means 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 even be trialled and had poor chances of making 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 24hours).

When it comes to what makes employees put 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.

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