We spoke with Jonathan Dodson, Zignal Labs’ VP of Engineering, to learn more about Zignal HackWeek, the winning projects and what it means to foster innovation as part of a team’s culture.

Zignal Labs: What is HackWeek?

Jonathan Dodson: HackWeek is an opportunity for our technology team to pursue self-driven projects. These projects are typically centered around developing new technology related to our business, such as expanding the shape of our work or finding new approaches to existing challenges. We typically do HackWeeks once or twice a year, and often end up developing technology that turns into major differentiators for our product, or at least helps us find an interesting thread that we can explore later down the line. Past HackWeek projects that have already been integrated into our product include Zignal Discover, an instant, Google-like search for all of Twitter, and Influence Intelligence, which identifies automated social media accounts to help companies better-inform marketing strategies, make smarter spending decisions and accurately gauge a crisis.

ZL: How does HackWeek work?

JD: Project ideas for HackWeek are submitted three weeks in advance. The week before HackWeek, everyone on the technology team puts in their preferences for the projects on which they’d like to work. Once the rankings are in, I work with team managers to determine the final HackWeek teams, which are typically made up of about two to five people each. When determining the teams, we intentionally keep the distributions of skill sets and work locations as high as possible, allowing everyone to work with new people.

Once the teams are finalized, the US-based teams all come together in San Francisco. We also have two remote teams in Mexico and Panama. When HackWeek kicks off on Monday, we typically have about 10 different projects running, with 40 or so people involved. The participants have from Monday afternoon through Thursday morning to work on the projects, presenting their finished demos to the rest of the technology team on Thursday afternoon, which often takes up to four hours.

Everyone votes ranked choice on the final projects, then goes out to a team dinner and awards ceremony, where the winners are announced. To wrap up the week, all of the projects are presented to the company as a whole on Friday. It’s a great week and I know the team enjoys the agile, collaborative approach we take.

ZL: What were the winning projects this year?

JD: All of the projects this year were fantastic, but three ultimately came out on top:

1. Google Analytics Widget

For many in the communications industry, it’s often a challenge to prove ROI – or connect PR and communications activities with an end result. The Google Analytics Widget solves this problem. By integrating with our existing platform to correlate media analytics with website engagement, the widget gives us the ability to see not only what people are saying about a brand, but also whether media mention or story actually drove traffic to that brand’s website, a direct indicator of ROI.

2. Trending Brand Logo Images

The Trending Brand Logo Images project not only identifies which brand logo images are trending on Twitter, but actually identifies the specific brands represented by those logos. This identification process has traditionally been difficult to accomplish because you must rely on visual-based identification processes, not the traditional text-based processes. Being able to employ a visual indicator for your brand logo is critical for brand reputation awareness and PR, enabling quick identification and action.

3. Zignal Discover – Uncovering Similar Search Terms

Within our Zignal Discover product, it’s easy to pinpoint media mentions around a specific search term, but it’s more difficult to identify what terms or issues related to the original search term you should explore. Using AI and machine learning, this project can translate words and documents into numerical vectors, which recommend search terms that help you more quickly find relevant context and search terms around a topic or issue. This is important for communications professionals that are developing content and strategy, as they want to employ commonly searched and high ranking keywords.

ZL: What made HackWeek exciting this year?

JD: For one, we had a much bigger team, which meant we could work on more projects and come up with more new ideas. What’s more, HackWeeks are all about taking an idea and bringing it to prototype as quickly as possible. One of the roadblocks HackWeek participants often encounter is around the UI – if it’s not up to snuff, projects can come out look wrong, no matter how great the idea.

Luckily, we spent a lot of time in the last year working on our internal Landscape and UX (the framework for our UI), which meant that this year’s projects came out looking fully baked and ready to go, to the great excitement to our sales team!

ZL: How does HackWeek tie into the culture of innovation you help foster at Zignal Labs?

JD: The great thing about our team is that it’s filled to the brim with very talented individuals who not only take a lot of ownership and interest in the problems we are solving, but love to solve these problems as a team. Even though we are dispersed across several regions, collaboration has always been something at which we excel. HackWeek helps bring this spirit of collaboration and innovation into tighter focus, not only for the Technology team, but for the company as a whole, inspiring people to fearlessly run with ideas and never stop innovating, because your team will always have your back.