Gary Niemen, Stephan Hofmann, and Their Hack Week Team Collaborate Toward Climate Footprint Calculator for Listeners

Earlier this month, more than 2,400 Spotify employees took part in our annual Hack Week. For five days, employees from across the business stepped away from their regular work and focused their energies on projects or initiatives they’re passionate about. And just as last year’s Hack Week encouraged Spotifiers to “make space,” this year’s also served as a larger call to action, challenging individuals to think critically about ways of better using our platform to “make the planet cooler.” What’s more, Hack Week 2022 encouraged a greater number of employees outside of engineering to hack than ever before.

Though Hack Week was again held virtually, employees came together on Slack, Google Meet, real-time note-taking, and our virtual Hack Week platform to push each other on ideas related to amplifying the company’s climate action, sustaining justice for people and the planet using our platform, helping Spotify reach net-zero emissions, and more. Each individual chose a project that personally excited them, though these are not projects that Spotify is currently pursuing—or that even relate back to each person’s work. This year, the For the Record team spoke to five hackers who worked across these themes on four climate-related projects. 

Product manager Gary Niemen

Product manager Gary Niemen is no stranger to Hack Week. In fact, his Spotify team was created thanks to a hack a few years back. And although he spent the last two Hack Weeks working solo on his own projects, this year was different. The theme inspired him to think on a much larger scale and embark on a collaboration that connected hackers within—and outside of—Spotify. 

He found a partner in Stephan Hofmann, a product manager on our Experience team and avid Hack Week participant. The pair welcomed everyone who wanted to join and assembled a huge team that spanned the U.S., U.K., Brazil, Sweden, Portugal, and India. They set to work on a project involving Spotify’s platform, an externally created carbon calculator, and the potential to merge the two.

Tell us about the hack you worked on.

Stephan: We partnered with a Swedish startup that built a carbon footprint calculator. You input how much you fly or what kind of food you tend to eat, or how you heat your home. And by answering all of these questions we can get a pretty good estimate of how many tons of carbon dioxide you use per year. We can also break those tons down into categories like where the emissions come from and get a pretty good model to understand your habits. And that’s really interesting information, because in order to change a habit, you have to understand it. And humans like to quantify things. So then, with Spotify quantifying it, we could personalize the content that we are showing to you. 

Gary: For example, if most of your emissions come from flying, we could show you podcasts on how you can offset your emissions from flying. We also thought it would be interesting to allow users to compare their carbon footprints with others—like with fellow heavy metal fans, for example, or with your favorite artist. That was another aspect to make it a bit fun; to help listeners fully engage. Essentially, once we enabled users to both calculate and understand their habits, we also wanted to help have a go at addressing their impact. 

Your hack would allow our users to take responsibility and action around their own impact on the climate. Why was that the approach you wanted to take with your hack? 

Stephan: We did a bit of thinking about the process of how someone makes a change, right? We all have responsibilities as individuals, but without a number to put to it, it can feel very ephemeral. If I drive my car, there are no immediate environmental consequences for that. But having the calculation really puts it into a quantitative perspective for people, which psychology shows is how you make a change to a habit. And because we’re actually giving them some ideas through the massive amount of content we have on our platform, we can actually give them advice and enable them to find out what they can do.

Gary: Quite early on in the week, I was looking at Spotify’s users and it’s above 400 million. I was thinking, okay, 400 million? And then the planet’s got 8 billion. So I thought, what percentage of the world population is that? That’s actually a pretty large percentage! This helped me to understand our potential impact.

Is there anything you’d like to bring from Hack Week back into your everyday work?

Product manager Stephan Hofmann

Stephan: I want to bring sustainability into my own product strategy more often. Because we’re both PMs, we have some influence. It’s given me a lot of inspiration on where we can go in our own product road maps. But I also think that a little bit of this “hack mentality,” trying something out before trying to define something completely, is a way to bring an agile methodology into a pure sprint, a chaotic sprint, that can really be beneficial. 

Gary: I spent the whole week thinking about messaging. First of all, getting the message over to the team—like a vision—to show what we’re doing. But then it starts to shift as everyone brings in their ideas. My job the whole week was keeping us aligned and focused and then removing blocks. So as the week went on, thinking “how can we communicate this to our stakeholders?” I’ll take away the importance of messaging and to always be refining. And even today, I suddenly understood even more of what we’re trying to do. 

Why is it important for Spotifiers to hack on making the planet cooler?

Gary: In our 2020 sustainability report, it says—and I can’t quote it exactly—but there’s a line there that basically says, we not only have a responsibility in terms of our emissions, but we also have a responsibility to use the impact that we the have on the global audience that we have, to make a difference. So that’s what sticks in the mind for me.

Stephan: This kind of stuff is what you think about maybe after work or when you’re, you know, having a shower or when you’re just living your daily life. And the problem is that our day jobs generally are very rigid around what is expected to be delivered. And it doesn’t leave the creative room to think, to actually build these kinds of game-changing ideas that actually do bring huge value to the world and to Spotify. Hack Week is our time to think. 

This year, the For the Record team spoke to five hackers who worked across four climate-related Hack Week projects. Check out each story from Meredith, Mauricio, and Serah.