Hacker Bites and Mentor Bites
2 May 2018

I've been describing the process of designing and executing the Startup Nations Policy Hackwhich I organised last November in Estonia with an awesome team from GEN, Dell, Mind the Bridge, the European Commission, and my own Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications.

A couple of weeks ago, I described the to the to-be-failed seminars. Most importantly, the somewhat frustrating experiences of the pre-Summit seminars led to a very good execution plan. Somewhat similar to how the whole story began for me - I just felt that the outcome was below bar and something had to be done about it. We now had around 10 weeks until the event itself, no time to turn back. So how did it go?

Mentor bites and hacker bites

First, we created a specific week-by-week plan for the policy hack team members. Policymakers as well as seasoned experts do not have a lot of time to spare. It was clear that we could only manage to take a bite of their time each week.

If that is so, I wanted to use this "bite" to give them clarity about what they could expect each week, and what we expected in return.

It was very necessary so they could have a chance to manage their own time, but also keep the upcoming Policy Hack in their agenda. It was necessary to keep them thinking about it and start developing their concepts to something that can be tested on site. We hoped that the weekly bites would serve as an appetizer of what was to come. It turned out to be a great idea.

The plan consisted of „hacker bites“ and „mentor bites“. A typical „hacker bite“ would be a Skype call between the organisers and the idea owner with the goal of explaining the format and managing expectations. A more crucial "hacker bite" was a call among the actual Policy Hack team - idea owner and the relevant knowledge we as organisers had added to it. An example of a „mentor bite“ would be reviewing hack ideas and suggesting reading materials for idea owners that would help them reframe or develop their idea. Or choosing which ideas the mentors wanted to focus on during the hack day and why.

Together, this menu of around 10 weekly bites served as the very necessary momentum building exercise. The mentors got a better understanding of how the idea owners think. The idea owners got first real exposure to supporting ideas and the teams we had built for them.


The first time I knew that the Policy Hack would be a success was when I participated in those crucial pre-hack calls where teams discussed the idea in depth. I was literally just smiling all along, overhearing participants from very different geographies and backgrounds discussing the upcoming event in Tallinn and what they would be hacking on. That was so very uplifting!

There is something unexpectedly moving and cheering when you're witness to startups, investors and policymakers all putting their full effort into understanding what issues the policymakers are facing, and making honest and straightforward suggestions on how to frame the discussion for the Policy Hack exercise.

"Have you tried this?"

"What about focusing on that question instead?"

"You know, I tried this way, and ..."

"What if ..."

All very good questions, the discussions were as lively as a Skype conference can get.

The hacker bites surely did work as an appetizer. For those who where hungry, of course. Not all pre-hack calls were full of energy. But most of them where.

I can't stress enough how fulfilling it was to hear all those lively discussions. It instantly made all the efforts we had done worth it many times over. As organisers, we, too, became hungry for more. Where's the main course?!

A peek into the kitchen

If there is talk of "bites" and "enjoyment", you should also learn how to cook those bites, and the main course.

There was no recipy book available, just a bunch of promises to the participants:

  • that they would get a team designed by their needs;
  • that they would get best practice from elsewhere;
  • that they would get a guided and well-structured hack experience;
  • that they could feel safe and playful, let the innovation drive the conversation.

As organisers, we had to make sure the hacker and mentor bites deliver those promises. Having mapped the key value proposition, most of the time was used to create the teams that would make the most sense. The emphasis was on the word create.

Creativity was all we needed, but we needed a lot of it. And some agility. Having served a couple of the first bites, we changed course a little bit to adjust in accordance to the feedback. If the bites had been left uneaten, then we tried something else. If the bite was useful, we gave a chance to repeat it.

For example, people were not very keen to read best practice advice, so we did not press on the idea owners spending time reading. On the other hand some of the teams had more than one pre-hack online discussion, because it provided best value.

And all of that was a learning experience which helped us adjust the main course. Thanks to Dell, we already had most of the tools to cook it. But we still lacked some of the ingredients - the people in hack teams.

Next week, I'll show you through the team building exercises in more details. And then we will be ready for the main course - the Policy Hack itself. Feeling hungry? Check back next week!

Mikk Vainik

Head of Accelerate Estonia

My experience in Estonian public service began in R&D policy, continued in e-governance and startup ecosystem development and is now focused… More