Facebook hackathon seeks cutting-edge features
MENLO PARK — Facebook Inc. is on the outs with investors and the tumbling stock price has dented employees’ morale and personal net worth. But at 1 Hacker Way, there’s no stopping the hacker culture — or the hackathon.
A few days ago, amped Facebook staffers sprawled on couches and chairs, plugging away on laptops and filling white boards with software code as they took part in the company’s 33rd hackathon.
A communal room pulsed with techno music. Giant white motivational posters with bright red lettering lined the walls: “Fortune Favors the Bold” and “What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid?” Big screens rolled live feeds of staffers hacking in Facebook offices in Seattle and New York.
Hackathons are the brainchild of 28-year-old founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg who organized the first one in his Harvard dorm room. Employees pull all-nighters to build new products and features that have nothing to do with their day jobs.
Facebook’s marathon coding sessions are becoming increasingly important to the company as it faces pressure to rack up its next billion users without losing the attention of the 1 billion it already has.
With his management philosophy that he dubbed “The Hacker Way,” Zuckerberg wants to guard against complacency out of fear that Facebook could become too bureaucratic and bloated to innovate quickly and keep its competitive edge.
Some of Facebook’s biggest features such as chat, the “like” button and an early version of the timeline came out of hackathons. So did a few of its most amusing ideas such as a yellow brick road on its campus and a “classy” men’s bathroom with an iPod playing classical music and a cologne dispenser. Even the wooden plank with a big switch that Facebook staffers pull when they launch a new product was built during a hackathon.
“As the company gets bigger, we tend to become more disconnected,” said Pedram Keyani, an engineering manager who organizes the hackathons. “This helps bring people together.”
Wednesday night’s hackathon theme, “the next billion,” was also a nudge in their ribs to stay focused on the big picture. The hackathon kicked off with a rally in a central courtyard where large concrete squares spell out “HACK.”
“Where else in the world could you say that you work at a company that 1 billion people use?” Keyani shouted to the crowd. “Now we have to make them 1 billion daily active users.”
Missing from the festivities on the moonlit campus was Zuckerberg. He was on a flight home from Russia where he met with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and recruited new users and engineers.
Zuckerberg borrowed and built on the high-tech industry’s hacker ethos which dates back more than half a century to when geeks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hacked telephone systems and computers. Silicon Valley companies host regular hackathons, and hackathons have even spread to the mainstream, with people hacking tools for Occupy Wall Street protests or to fight autism.
At Facebook, the word “hack” is painted and plastered all over the company’s campus. Motivational posters push employees to tinker and experiment: “Move Fast and Break Things.”
In a letter to investors for the company’s prospectus, Zuckerberg said: “Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.”
Hackathons, which take place every six to eight weeks, help reinforce that hacker ethos as the company grows, Keyani said. Facebook has jumped from 600 employees to 4,000 over the last four years. About half the company takes part, with the exception of the hackathon the night before the company’s IPO, when everyone pulled an all-nighter to be on hand when Zuckerberg rang the Nasdaq opening bell the next morning.
For days beforehand, Facebook employees floated ideas on an internal Facebook group to get feedback and recruit co-workers to help. On the night of the hackathon, they huddled in small groups, glued to their laptops.
Amanda Johnson, a technical program manager, and Song Xu, a partner development manager, were working on a way to encourage users to update to the latest version of the Facebook mobile app, something that has become increasingly important as Facebook ships more updates.
“Existing technology is not making it easy for normal users to be aware of the updates or the value of the updates. Our job is to make it easy,” Xu said. “With the hackathons, you always have a chance to step out of your normal comfort zone to try something new.”
Johnson and Xu have two weeks to polish their product before presenting it to the company. If Facebook staffers like it, they’ll shout “Ship! Ship! Ship!”
Throughout the night, Facebook staffers all over campus collaborated and coded, mostly on mobile features designed to give Facebook a boost in its effort to reach users who more and more are accessing the service on mobile devices, not personal computers. A few worked on an evacuation tool that would track who was on campus and might need help in the event of a disaster, some even carved pumpkins. They refueled at long white tables loaded with egg rolls and other Chinese food from Jing Jing, the same Palo Alto restaurant that has been feeding hackathons for years.
As the sun rose, staffers nodded off on couches as the batteries on their laptops slowly died. The hackathon officially ended at 6 a.m. The prize for participating: a hackathon T-shirt.
Keyani went in search of a shower and a clean shirt. “It’s all positive except for the level of productivity the next day,” he said.
Seven hours later, Zuckerberg, fresh off his return flight from Russia, stepped onto a podium to hoots and high fives. He celebrated hitting 1 billion users, and then reminded everyone to focus on the challenges ahead.
Product designer Blaise DiPersia said he still hasn’t quite processed the realization that the features his colleagues spent all night developing might soon reach one out of seven people on the planet.
“I can’t really comprehend it,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s overwhelming.”
Then he did what all Facebook employees do after clocking a new milestone. He went back to work.
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