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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.

"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.

2. Find the Right Space

"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.


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