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Inside Facebook's hackathons: 5 tips for hosting your own

Kristin Burnham | Aug. 22, 2012
The only rule of Facebook hackathons is you can't work on work.

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.

Facebook hackathons have since grown into something much bigger and are now an intrinsic part of its culture.

"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.


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