Hacking Christmas during a pandemic

4 min read

Martin Aasa

BY Martin Aasa Dec, 21, 2021

When you plan for a Christmas party for months and months, but the closer you get to December the more evident it becomes that COVID is out there to get you and ruin everything. Well, this is exactly what happened and our long-planned Christmas party got cancelled. Luckily if you nurture creativity and give freedom to developers, some very interesting and fun alternatives will surface.

Here’s the big question: how do you bring people “together” while there’s a pandemic? Obviously, physically “together” is neither safe nor responsible, so virtual it is! But as we all know, working from home doesn’t replace the real face-to-face conversations. So how do you bring more feelings of togetherness to something virtual and secluded? Well, we had already planned our monthly Tech Talk for December 7th, which usually is just a presentation on some cool tech topic that people are passionate about. This time, however, we decided to do it differently and use that as an opportunity for the Christmas Hack.

Our initial plan was to use our big Christmas tree as a canvas for 10 Raspberry Pis (with screens as decorations). All the teams would be responsible for one of the screens and whatever they displayed. The fun part for developers was the coding that needed to happen in order for it to show anything at all. We would have ended up going with this solution if getting the displays wouldn’t have been so impossible. Apparently with all of the shortages, Raspberry Pi screens are extremely rare and we got shipping estimates into the next summer, just in time for next year’s Christmas. So that was off the table.

We still loved the idea, so an alternative was presented - how about we collect and repurpose some older smartphones and use them instead? Suddenly, we were back in action; the mood was great and it actually felt doable. We managed to get half of the phones from our own employees and rented iPhone 6s’ for the other half.

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Our beautiful homemade Christmas tree

There was still one problem: how are we going to place the phones on a big tree, whilst it being safe and aesthetically pleasing? Long extension cords and chargers were the biggest obstacle. So another compromise needed to be made: we settled for our own do-it-yourself Christmas tree on a wooden canvas that we spray painted and decorated. We think it actually ended up looking better than if they would’ve been on the big tree. There’s a saying in Estonian - “lõpp hea, kõik hea”, which means “end good all good”.

We have the tree, we have the phones, we have the chargers, now what? It was time to hack. We set up repositories and the environment for developers to start coding in, but gave them no guidance on what the phone should display. Every team got Next.js app template based on the Node.js backend. Thus, the main burden revolved around implementing changes to the React codebase on the frontend side. However, some of the teams decided to play around with the backend too.

To no-one's surprise, we got 10 very different solutions to what a Christmas decoration on a tree should look like. At the end of the day, we had half an hour for all of the teams to explain their “decoration”. This turned out to be really fun and gave them an opportunity to explain the vision, the obstacles, and the future opportunities if they had more time to work on it. It’s safe to say that we loved the creativity this whole process brought out and I’m sure our arguably not the best looking homemade Christmas tree will bring more joy and sense of togetherness for this Christmas than any amount of store-bought decorations ever could.