Inside Facebook’s Hackathons: 5 Tips For Hosting Your Own
Facebook's all-night innovation sessions, which have produced features such as Timeline, Chat and the Like button, attract hundreds of employees. See what Facebook has learned from its hackathons and how those lessons can apply to your business.
By Kristin Burnham
The only rule of Facebook hackathons is you can’t work on work.
Hackathons are Facebook’s overnight innovation sessions, usually held every six or eight weeks. In Facebook’s early days, hackathons involved just a few handfuls of employees. They’d order takeout and pull an all-nighter working to prototype potential new features for the social network.
“The people Facebook hires are creative and want to work on interesting stuff. Hackathons give them a creative outlet on the side, outside of work,” Engineering Manager Pedram Keyani says. Keyani attended his first hackathon five years ago, when he first joined Facebook, and has taken part in almost every one ever since.
“Hackathons are important to us on a number of levels,” he says. “It reinforces that failure is alright, which is really important for innovation. Your project isn’t going to be perfect. You’re going to explore an idea knowing it might not be the right one—but, hey, you only spent a night working on it, and you learned something.”
At Facebook, hackathons have also been instrumental in encouraging cross-company collaboration: It gives employees an opportunity to work with others they normally might not work with, Keyani says. It builds new relationships and is an opportunity to learn new skills.
Facebook’s hackathons also focus on another element that Keyani says is important for anyone in the tech industry: speed. “Hackathons are a reminder that if you want to launch something, you can’t spend six months to iterate and six more months to develop and test it,” he says. “To be on top, you need to make things happen quickly.”
Sixty percent of the projects from the hacks held in December, February and March have already shipped internally or to Facebook users.
“Taking the time to think differently pays off with new ideas and cool things. Hackathons are so valuable because it’s a time where we’re able to think past the next day or week and just build without constraints,” Keyani says. “Instead of worrying if their idea will scale for more than 900 million people, they’re able to focus on getting their basic project up and running so the broader team can quickly iterate to make it better.”
The events have evolved over the years, and the most recent Facebook hackathon attracted more than 500 employees. Here’s a look at how Facebook runs the event, lessons it has learned and tips for how you can adopt the idea at your company.
1. Self-Organize into Teams
In Facebook’s early days, employees sat in a circle, described the project idea they had and broke up into small groups. As the hackathon’s popularity has grown, Facebook now relies on wikis to self-organize.
“Weeks before the night of the hackathon, employees post their project idea to the wiki with a description of it and the number of people the team is looking for,” Keyani says. “Anyone in the company is allowed to join.”
Keyani says the wiki is a simple method that works well for them because interest in the event is so high. If you have a small department, meeting face-to-face like Facebook did might be easier, he says.
“Some of our more successful hackathons have been dependent on how we set up the space we work in,” Keyani says.
Find a conference room or space big enough to comfortably fit everyone participating in the hackathon, he says, especially since they’ll be there for hours. Facebook outfits its space with couches and beanbags so employees are comfortable—and plenty of whiteboards so teams can document ideas and progress.
3. Pump Up Participants
Facebook kicks off all hackathons with a motivational speech. “We want to remind employees what this is all about and which company values it reinforces,” Keyani says. “You want to remind them about the company they’re working at and what it stands for. Every company will have a flavor of that.”
Another key to a successful hackathon is showing employees that the executive staff supports it, Keyani says. “If you’re going to throw a Hackathon, it’s really important that people from all over the company are involved,” he says. “Get members of your executive team to show up, at least for part of the time.”
Make it fun, too. Hackathons at Facebook always kick off at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and wrap up at 7 a.m. the next morning. The company orders food from its favorite restaurants and a few kegs. In the morning, teams that are still hacking will go out to breakfast together before heading home for a few hours of sleep.
4. Present the Prototype
Two weeks after the hackathon, participants reconvene for the “prototype forum”—a meeting in which each group presents their project to Mark Zuckerberg and other executives. Keyani says the two-week timeframe gives groups the opportunity to fine-tune their hack before presenting it.
“You have three minutes to get the demo working, say what it is and why you’ve developed it,” Keyani says. “Because we have so many people, we’re strict with the three-minute rule. We’ll pull the plug on you if we have to, even if you’re Mark Zuckerberg.”
Keyani says this phase of the hackathon is one of the most fun—there are always a few “ah-ha” moments. “We’ll see a presentation and say, ‘Why haven’t we shipped this yet?'” he says.
After the prototype phase, Zuckerberg and other executives choose a couple of projects to view more in-depth, Keyani says, and they’ll give the groups feedback and suggestions for making it better. From every hackathon, there are one or two projects that go on to become a new Facebook feature.
The follow-up phase is one of the most important—and it sets the tone for future hackathons, Keyani says. Employees need to know that the business takes their ideas and commitment seriously. “Otherwise it just disrupts people’s schedule and they view it as, ‘We spent time working on stuff, then dropped it,'” Keyani says.
A number of Facebook’s familiar features have stemmed from hackathons, such as Timeline, Video and the Like button. Another is Chat. “Chat was a small little project that a couple of people worked on,” Keyani says. “They built it just for employees and when it was presented everyone asked, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?'”