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Hacks   - 12/24/2006

Yahoo likes these hackers

Jesse Zbikowski wore a yellow tie, purple-tinted glasses, and one red and one blue shoe as he hacked Yahoo's Web sites one evening in late September - at the company's request.

Yahoo Inc., based in Sunnyvale, Calif., invited Zbikowski, 29, a self-employed computer programmer living in San Francisco, and 500 other software hobbyists to an event it called Hack Day. The goal: get smart programmers to combine Yahoo's existing Web services with their own coding skills to create new products.

The 24-hour coding fest, fueled by pizza, beer, and a performance by the musician Beck, is one example of how companies such as Yahoo, Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are tapping new talent. Computer-savvy people in their 20s and 30s are helping create ways for consumers to use the companies' most popular applications, including mapping, photo-sharing and instant-messaging services.

"If we're going to be successful in the next 10 years, we have to tap into all those external creative resources," Yahoo cofounder David Filo, 40, said in an interview. "We're trying to foster innovation."

The hackers' ideas often involve combining the information on one Web site with that of another site to create a hybrid. A programmer, for example, might overlay a city's crime data on Google or Yahoo maps so viewers can see where crimes were committed. Such sites are called mashups, after the hip-hop recording technique of mixing two or more songs to create an unexpected new sound.

Yahoo, whose pages are the most-visited group of Web sites in the United States, is looking for new-product ideas amid rising competition from sites such as Google's YouTube Inc. and News Corp.'s MySpace.com. Yahoo handled 24 percent of U.S. Internet searches in October, trailing Google's 50 percent, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, of New York.

The purpose of events like Hack Day is to tap the enthusiasm of people who have new ideas about how consumers can weave the Internet into their daily lives. Yahoo promoted the idea on its Web pages aimed at Internet developers. Participants came from all around the country and Canada, while most were from Silicon Valley, where Yahoo is based.

The hackers had 24 hours to think of new ways to use Yahoo's Web applications, such as e-mail or maps, write the necessary code, and then present their concept to executives. Some in the crowd hoped the attention might lead to job offers, while others did it for fun.

Filo wandered around Yahoo's campus, meeting people like Diana Eng, 23, and Emily Albinski, 25, fashion designers from New York. Using a sewing machine and a soldering iron, they worked on their latest accessory, a handbag with a built-in camera that automatically uploads images over a cell phone to Yahoo's digital photo site.

Zbikowski spent Hack Day programming a Web site that scans a computer's music files and then retrieves concert information from Yahoo's Web pages to let users know when their favorite bands are performing. Zbikowski said he attended to meet people who share his excitement about the Internet's evolution and to hear Yahoo officials talk about new products.

"The Bay area is great for social hacking events," Zbikowski said. "The talks were really high quality."

Hack Day's winning ideas included a device that shows Yahoo's weather information and stock quotes on television sets and a version of Yahoo's e-mail that has photos to identify contacts. Eng and Albinski were among the 17 teams that won prizes such as iPod Nano music players.

Hack Day participants kept ownership rights to anything they created.

Events like Hack Day used to occur mostly in Silicon Valley, with its concentration of tech companies and schools with strong computer-science programs. Now the companies are taking talent searches on the road. Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., has been host to events for programmers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and even Las Vegas. Yahoo has courted hackers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Mashup Camp, another informal gathering of young programmers sponsored by technology companies such as Intel Corp., began in Silicon Valley, and is headed for Boston next month. Participants determine agendas. Sessions include "Speed Geeking," a version of speed dating for technophiles, where developers give five-minute demonstrations of their projects.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were host to 120 map-software developers at its headquarters in June to encourage people to use Google's maps on their own Web sites. Paul Rademacher, creator of housingmaps.com, a site that plots home listings on Craigslist using Google maps, was one of six developers that Google hired at another mapping event last year.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer    
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