When I was a product manager at Google, Apple, and Wildfire, there was a type of hacker I’d occasionally get lucky enough to spot in the wild and work alongside. Always lurking in the most sensitive areas of the business, they hunted for ways to manipulate, bend, and break complex systems. If you’re smart (or just lucky) these "enterprise hackers," as I took to calling them, are already inside your company—and they might just save your bacon.
These days, I am seeing them in increasing numbers and in surprising places. Their growing legion makes perfect sense. Enterprise Hackers are being empowered by a new wave of web-based software (SaaS, in the parlance) to hack solutions to your top problems, often without any technical training. This movement is being driven by SaaS enterprise products with consumer-grade interfaces, freemium business models, and new "glue" services that allow the output of one system to be fed into the input of another. All without having to write a line of code.
Until recently, Enterprise Hacking was still largely the realm of people with technical backgrounds, and involved a lot of improvisation and duct tape. I spent several years at YouTube at one point leading a group that built tools for our internal teams to combat bullying, spamming, and other lousy behavior on the site.
We pieced together solutions with a mashup of code, scripts, and browser plugins, pretty much whatever got the job done quickly. It required recruiting people with a knack for support operations, but also some significant technical expertise. I found that these sorts of people were incredibly hard to find. That wasn’t the only difficulty we faced. Maintaining and scaling our tools was also a constant challenge as YouTube’s user base hurtled toward a billion. Touching any sort of user data was a big pain, as it is in many organizations. Headaches all around.
The situation is vastly different today. A growing crop of startups is providing SaaS tools that can be used by Enterprise Hackers without technical backgrounds, and the power of connecting these point solutions is tremendous. If I were doing this today, my YouTube team’s arsenal would have included:
- Big data analytics and machine learning to spot spammer patterns (e.g., Wise.io)
- Business intelligence tools to create dashboards to track and communicate hot spots (e.g., GoodData, which I should disclose is an Andreessen Horowitz portfolio company)
- Powerful scripting languages that can string together both internal and external SaaS systems to automate a host of business processes (e.g., Zapier)
- Drag-and-drop ETL designers to more easily access data sets (e.g., SnapLogic, also a portfolio company)
- Tools to quickly create mobile versions of enterprise apps without writing code (e.g., Capriza, also a portfolio company)
- A/B testing services to redesign and optimize web app user experiences (e.g., Optimizely)
Folks in these organizations can enable your company to scale rapidly, adapt to change, and serve customers better because they are embedded in your organization and already know how things really get done. They’ve always had the relationships and intimate knowledge of products and customers to solve the problems they see around them, but now they also have the power tools to scale their ideas.
But as with all power tools, you’d better use them correctly or hazard some serious damage. Done right, the efforts of Enterprise Hackers can markedly improve the performance of your organization while also relieving some pressure on engineering and IT. Done wrong, and those same efforts can create unmaintainable patchworks of code and data that can dangerously leak into your organization’s mission critical pathways.
That is the risk you take, but it can be managed. And more than likely, there are already Enterprise Hackers in your organization. So how do you leverage and promote the practice the right way?
First off, many SaaS tools can be trialed on a freemium basis, so it’s easy for your team to get started as they cast about for a problem to attack. Encourage your Enterprise Hackers to first focus on improving your internal systems, where they may have an advantage over your engineering team. A consumer-grade user experience is the new enterprise standard, so leverage that recent college grad on your support team who is steeped in the latest consumer apps. They can help build a more intuitive consumer-grade user experience into the systems they use at work, and that can lead to a big boost in your organization’s productivity.
Product and engineering will still play an important role in all this, however. They can provide a sandbox environment where Enterprise Hackers can stand-up new apps, access data feeds, and authenticate accounts without impacting production systems or data. Product and engineering should also clarify what they should exclusively manage and where Enterprise Hackers should stay clear.
The Enterprise Hacking movement can be especially valuable for startup CEOs. A startup environment with tight budget constraints can often drive people to build duct-tape solutions. This is often a better route than spending time evaluating and paying for an external solution. It’s likely that you’ll outgrow that solution in six months anyway, so why burn scarce resources purchasing something with a short shelf life?
CEOs should invite teams to prototype their ideas by providing a small budget in time or money that employees can tap into with a good proposal, and create events to publicly reward innovative hacks.
I am not suggesting that Enterprise Hackers are the answer to all your prayers. But they are a growing and valuable asset you may not even know you have, and one that can help solve your company’s most pressing problems quickly and cheaply.
Tom Rikert is a partner at Andreessen Horowitz on the investing team. Previously, he was director of product management at Wildfire, a social media marketing company acquired by Google in 2012. Prior to Wildfire, Tom was a product manager for Google, where he worked on YouTube and AdWords. He’s also held roles at Autodesk and Apple, and is a graduate of MIT and the Harvard Business School. Tom can be found on Twitter @tomrikert and more information about Andreessen Horowitz can be found here.