Social Focus: Hack Till You Drop

Employees on developing binges at Facebook "Hackathons"

Soleio Cuervo knows a little something about online video. And maybe he likes to show it off sometimes. Luckily for him, his company gives him the chance. He happens to work at Facebook.

The product designer conceptualizes some of Facebook's core features and applications. In fact, he and fellow engineer Chris Putnam came up with the company's video player during what is known around Facebook as a "Hackathon," a sort of playground for in-house code hackers to experiment improving on all things Facebook.

Hackathons began as overnight retreats for engineers who wanted to think and work through pet projects, but in the past couple of years the event spread into other departments such as human resources and food and beverage. Any employee who believes they have an application or business process that could improve life at Facebook can participate.

The idea to build a video sharing application where members could record and share clips with friends came to Cuervo and Putnam after seeing several simpler versions other sites had built-in, allowing people to use Web cameras and record videos on the Internet. Facebook's video app would allow members to share and view videos privately, rather than publically on Google's YouTube.

During the January 2007 Hackathon, Cuervo and Putnam worked two nights straight cranking out a dumbed-down prototype of the video player. The two began the project in the evening after working a normal work day, and continued to work through the night into the next 40 hours to finish it. They took turns sleeping in four-hour shifts each night. "We gained so much momentum the first night that we became fixated on getting it done," Cuervo said.

Cuervo spent the first night sketching plans for the video player, designing the interface and the editing page, and organizing the "dirt-simple" dashboard that would collect and file videos sent by friends. Prior to the first night, the two had a concept, a desire and an outline on a whiteboard, but little prep work had been done. Energy spent toward coding the video player and getting it to work seems synonymous with other successful Hackaton projects that put less emphasis on planning and more on building the app on the fly.

Shortly after the Hackathon, Cuervo and Putnam presented the concept to Facebook's engineering team. The video player gained approval and staff to build, sneaking its way on to the product roadmap.

Trying to determine the number of people needed to build the video player and recorder and how to schedule the project into the product and launch strategy proved challenging. "Building a prototype for a couple of hundred Facebook employees to try out was relatively easy, but scaling that to 25 million members, at the time, created a separate problem," Cuervo said.

The problems revolved around coding, storage and ensuring the basic video player could scale as more Facebook members used the platform and eventually support the 500 million members. The team had to hire a couple of engineers, but the product launched two months later at the company's annual developer conference. Along with the video player, Facebook Chat emerged during the same Hackathon.

Now the group holds a prototype forum within days after the Hackathon ends. The organizers set aside between one and two hours to gather in the main conference room where teams take three minutes to present projects.

Short-form videos are the most popular in eight of the top 10 genres analyzed in a metacafe-sponsored May 2010 study published by Frank N. Magid Associates. About 41 percent watch user-generated videos shot and uploaded to sites like YouTube.

Through the years participation in Hackhathons has spread across the company, from a handful of engineers to about 200 or more employees. Those who choose to participate in the night-long events literally pitch a tent and spend darkness on the lawn. Facebook recently completed in July its 18th Hackathon. Most last eight hours at night, but a few through the years have been held during the day.

Prior to Hackathons, teams set up a Wiki page to post a synopsis of projects they plan to work on. People can add their names to the projects.

This most recent Hackathon in July ran three days, a summer tradition that began last year. The event gave summer interns a chance to experience Facebook's culture and employees a bit more time to explore ambitious projects.

During this year's three-day event, Camp Hackathona, a riff on Camp Anawanna, became the theme. Facebook set up a campsite behind the main building and invited people to pitch tents. Camp counselors leading the event wore traditional garb and took charge of barbecuing and events.

Forrester Research Senior Analyst Augie Ray thinks opening ideas, or crowd sourcing, from budding minds spurs innovation. "If you think about it, Twitter has succeeded through their ecosystem by getting engineers to create apps based on their API," he said. "It's a little different method, but both are ways to get people to develop ideas."

Often times the Hackathon won't be completely freeform and the developments there will tie into product announcements at major Facebook events. Before launching Facebook's latest Graph API at the most recent f8 developer conference, "Graphacathon" became the theme for the Facebook Hackathon just prior. Company execs organizing the event looked for projects built on top of the Graph API that would live outside of to prove proof of concept, test the technology, and demonstrate the possibilities prior to the announcement.

That wasn't the first time Facebook used a Hackathon to test features before launching them live at a developers conference. The company held a platform-specific Hackathon prior to f7 encouraging Facebook employees to create applications to make sure the APIs worked.

Facebook isn't the only mega company to encourage employees to work on pet projects. Google recognizes people are more productive when they work on projects that excite them. Similar to Facebook, Google engineers get flexibility when it comes to choosing projects they join.

Aside from having input into their main focus at Google, engineers are encouraged, but not required, to pursue other Google-related interest for up to 20 percent of their normal working hours, whether researching a better parking plan or creating a new programming language. Google execs realize the 20 percent program remains a critical driver in the company's development of innovative ideas and products.

During the years, the 20 percent program has generated several Google products, including Google News, GMail, and Google Talk. Remember when hacking mostly referred to kids (such as a young Steve Jobs) just trying to get a pay phone to cough up a free call?

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