2014-05-14

Co.Labs

Inside Facebook's New Grown-Up Hackathons

Why the company came of age and toned down its impulsive, all-night code-fests.



Long gone are the days when mainly fresh-faced college graduates populated Facebook’s desks, considering that even Mark Zuckerberg turned 30 this week. Ten years since the site’s launch, Facebook has a sprawling Menlo Park campus with several employees that have been at Facebook for around a decade. For this more seasoned crew, office culture staples—like impulsive, all-night hacking sessions—have started to become onerous, especially since they now have their own families to get back to in the evenings.

"Some feedback we started getting about a year to a year and a half ago was that it wasn’t really inclusive of all types of employees, specifically people with families, who have other nighttime obligations," Facebook software engineer Bob Baldwin told me. It used to be that Facebook’s all-night hackathons would start at around 8:00 p.m. on a workday and go until 6:00 a.m. the next morning.

So for the last year or so, hackathons at Facebook have been starting at 11:00 a.m. (although they still go late into the night, Baldwin says). But that's not the only change. Here's how else Facebook has adjusted its sprints to accomodate everyone.

An Aging Giant

"We are the oldest people in the company!" jokes Pedram Keyani, engineering overhead at Facebook. Keyani is 36 years old, and Baldwin is 28. Pedram has been at Facebook for seven years and Baldwin, five.

Baldwin and Kewani are Facebook’s hackathon organizers, but they don’t officially bear claim to those titles. Keyani has been organizing them for years, and Baldwin has been involved in the last year and a half. They both have full-time roles as engineers at Facebook.

From his experience, Keyani has generally seen the youngest Facebook employees jumping to do all-night hackathons. After one of the first all-night sessions a group of interns attended, "The interns got so excited that they were doing a hackathon a week. Which to me seems insane because it takes me a day or two to recover every single time I go to a hackathon. So the fact they were able to just do that and do their regular projects, was really impressive," says Keyani.

Given the smaller emphasis on sacrificing sleep, attendance at the current day-to-night format has become popular among more age groups at Facebook. "We still have a pretty good mix of older and younger developers. More recent grads will be into participating all night," says Baldwin. But that does not completely rule out the older crowd staying to the end. "People with families still participate in the longer format. They go all night."

Here is how the new Facebook hackathons typically pan out.

One Month Out

"Initially, when we would set up a hackathon, it would be within 24 hours of the hackathon starting. So someone would send out an email to the company saying, ‘Does anyone want to hack?’ And if enough people responded, the next night, we would have a hackathon. And they would get in a circle and say what they wanted to work on. There would be 40, 50, 100 of us," says Keyani.

"Now, with hackathons, because we work with more complex projects and want more innovative things to happen, we give people several weeks of notice," says Keyani.

About a month ahead of time, Keyani and Baldwin will typically set up a wiki page devoted to the upcoming hackathon. The site acts as a forum for interested people to post ideas for prototype projects and tends to create more pre-fabricated groups and creative ideas than if there were no forum. The momentum builds up over the month, and the participants are better prepared than they were for the old ad hoc hacking nights.

"So, hackathons have evolved not only to support families and people with nighttime obligations but actually because we have bigger, more complex operations for building cool, mobile apps. We’re trying to give more space for more ambitious projects," says Keyani.

11:00 A.M.

A typical day-to-night hackathon will ceremoniously commence at Hacker Square, the Facebook campus’s central converging point. There, the hacking group gathers around a crane that has morphed into a large platform over time, a relic from Facebook’s past at Palo Alto’s Hewlett Packard building. It has symbolically served for years as a totem for the ensuing coding session. "We’ve kicked off hackathons there every year," says Baldwin.

Keyani could not imagine Facebook without the crane once they moved to the Menlo Park campus a couple years ago. "When we decided to move over here, I asked someone in Facilities if we could borrow the crane and put it in our new facilities. And it magically appeared one day," says Keyani.

While not everyone at Facebook will participate in the hackathon, day-to-day activities keep going for the non-hackers. But Keyani and Baldwin do their best to drum up support from each department’s managers. They generally request that recurring meetings be cancelled for the hackathon participants, both on the day of the hackathon and the day after, for those needing recovery time. What sets the hackathoners apart is they follow one simple rule: Do not work on your regular daytime projects.

5:00 P.M.

Once the hackathon is well underway, all of the separate teams work in parallel in one, dedicated space. Keyani and Baldwin pay special attention to the space, making sure there are couches for people to lounge and brainstorm while creating a feeling of togetherness for the event. The hackathon feels like a party, even if some of the coders don’t stay for the late-night festivities.

Besides building prototypes, a hackathon participant might give a talk on a specific topic. "One of the things that we like to do is give people the space to give tech talks or tutorials for different technologies or areas that we want, as a company, to get good at. So, for example, when we bought this company Parse, we would give tech talks on how to use our APIs," says Keyani.

Baldwin says that people with families will normally code through the day and stay for a couple hours after the regular day ends, within reason. As normal employees’ working days wind down, the hackathoners receive reinforcements in the form of beer. In the late afternoon, a few beer kegs appear in the hacking area.

And there is no shortage of food since all Facebook employees eat gratis at any of the number of restaurants on campus. "During the day, we typically just use the Facebook facilities because we have world-class chefs here," Keyani says.

Post-Hackathon

The all-nighters sleep in the next day and work a little from home. "This is not a company where you’re expected to work 9 to5. No one clocks in or clocks out. It’s all about impact. If you do 80 hours of work in 20 hours, that’s even better than doing it in 80 hours. No one is watching you, as long as you cancel the meetings you’re supposed to go to," says Keyani.

After everyone has sufficiently recuperated, the participants attend a prototype forum, where everyone talks about what they created. Not long after, about 10 of the best projects get presented to Mark Zuckerberg. "Those teams get special time with him just to get some feedback on how to build out these things to the next level," says Keyani.

Visible projects that have come out of past hackathons are the Facebook timeline, calendar-view events, weather integration with events, and letting users know what photos they have in common with one another. "The more interesting thing is that a lot of these hackathon things influence things years later—months or years later—and actually influence the product," says Keyani. "It’s an experimentation framework."

"We have this saying internally that code wins arguments. Meaning that you can debate a feature for a long time and never really come to a conclusion; whereas instead, you could just build a prototype of it and hand somebody your phone that has the prototype built on it," says Baldwin.

On Declining

Taking part in a hackathon might mean the difference between simply working on a team and propelling your career by spearheading a whole new project. So, declining to take part in a hackathon might close up some potential opportunities. But Keyani says that there are no real consequences to forgoing a hackathon.

"We are a company that really believes that you hire really smart people, and you give them the freedom to do what they think is best. So, there’s no forcing of people to go to hackathons or giving them a hard time. It’s really about, ‘What are you most excited working on?’ There’s really no stigma on whether you decide to attend or not," says Keyani.

That hackathons are well organized today does not mean that Facebook rigidly expects its employees to take part. Before Baldwin and Keyani built up the planning structure they have now, engineers would always wonder when the next hackathon would take place. Actively putting them together just seemed like the logical next step.

The change Facebook made to its hackathons focuses on accommodating the working styles of all of its employees. A more mature culture merits changes like this. And the fact that the hackathon organizers are listening to the rest of the company is paying off. "I see every year that more people come, and more people get excited about it," says Keyani.

[Image via Pixabay]




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