Innovating for social justice: Zillow’s Hack Week inspires new ways to “do right”

The bi-annual event unleashes creativity among employees to help customers unlock the next chapter in their lives.

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Twice a year, Zillow hosts a tech cultural phenomenon known as “Hack Week.” It’s a time when employees with all different types of titles, backgrounds and expertise, from interns to executives, come together to focus on creating solutions to problems they’re passionate about. Teams present their projects to the entire company, winners are selected and many innovations make their way into Zillow products and services as part of our mission to help home buyers, sellers and renters unlock the next chapter in their lives.

We asked Hack Week participants to share what it means to create, collaborate, experiment and innovate together while working remotely during the current health crisis — and why this year, social justice innovation emerged as a major theme. 

Here are their answers, edited for clarity. 

What happens at Zillow during Hack Week?

The coolest part about Hack Week is the number of ideas that come out of it. Anyone’s idea can become a reality, even within the actual products that Zillow is offering. That just shows that Zillow is not really a top-down company where executives are telling everyone what to build, but instead, is a company where ideas can originate from anyone. And if you have good ideas and you’re selling them well, those things will come to reality. 

— Adam Cohn, Senior Manager, Social Impact

How was Hack Week different this time around?

Even though my team was pretty spread out and working from home (due to COVID-19), I didn’t really feel like it affected our ability to innovate because we still had the technology to allow us to communicate, things such as video calls via Blue Jeans and Slack. And we had our normal daily stand up, we had breakout rooms where we were able to post out mockups or ideas and still get feedback from other people. So, it worked out really well and it did not affect our ability to innovate at all. 

— Thao Vo, Senior Security Engineer

How does Hack Week tie in with Zillow’s culture of innovation? 

Our culture of innovation is going on all the time, but innovation really requires a unique combination of deep knowledge of a problem space, having time to focus, having people to bounce your ideas off of, and Hack Week gives you that all in this compressed time period. I really believe mixing it up is important for innovation and having a chance to think differently, think about different problems, think with different people, even change your space. But Hack Week is this great way to have that kind of energy around innovation happen all at once in a short period of time. 

— Kristin Acker, Senior Vice President, Experience Design  

Why are social impact products important at this point in history   

I think housing is almost a fundamental right for humans. If you don’t have housing, it’s so hard to do anything else with your life. You are unsafe and it’s probably hard for you to find a job. It’s hard for you to provide for your kids. Unfortunately access to quality and affordable housing historically has been out of reach to minority communities due to systemic racism. I think it’s our duty to do right by our customers of every race and background to shine a light on this and do everything in our power to fix it.

— Jessica Gutchess, Senior UX Researcher

What innovative products have I seen come out of Hack Week in the past?

There is one called Picasso. If you open the Zillow app and go to the map, you start to draw, and you can draw around the waterfront, you can draw through neighborhoods, very specific areas you want to live. And then once you’re done drawing, we’ll only show you the homes within that particular boundary. 

Another great Hack Week project: autocomplete. If you go to the Zillow homepage and start typing in that box, you’ll see an autocomplete. Hack Week is not just about spinning our wheels and trying to come up with ideas, it’s actually trying to figure out if you spent four or five days building this thing out, how much more effort would it actually take for us to ship it? 

— Mohammad Sarhan, Senior Director, Product Development

Zillow recently added LGBT fair housing information to every listing – the result of a Hack Week pitch by an intern. Read about it here.