What Exactly Happens At A Facebook Hackathon?

By David Cohen 

Have you ever wondered what goes on at a Facebook hackathon? Pedram Keyani offered the lowdown in a note on the Facebook Engineering page.

Keyani said the first official hackathon took place in 2007, adding that they have expanded from 20 people at the first one he attended to more than 500 at the most recent one last Thursday.

He added that 60 percent of the projects from the hackathons last December and this past February and March were shipped, either internally or to Facebook users, including:

  • Full-screen photos
  • Photo filters for Facebook for Every Phone
  • A 42-foot QR code on the roof of Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.
  • An internal timeline application that rewards engineers with a Pokemon each time they fix a bug

Here’s the timeline (pun intended), from Keyani

At around 7 p.m. on the day of the hackathon, everyone gathers around the crane from our old 1601 California office — the kickoff place for more than one0half of our hackathons — and Roddy Lindsay, Blaise DiPersia, Bubba Murarka, and I get up to give the official charge. There are only two rules: You have to work on something outside your day job, and if it’s your first hackathon, you have to hack.

From there, everyone gets together with their group and starts hacking. Around 10 p.m., the group gets back together to eat the traditional hackathon Chinese food feast from Jing Jings, a small place we’ve been getting food from since we were in our first offices in downtown Palo Alto. Then everyone keeps working until around 6 a.m. or when they pass out — whichever comes first.

After each hackathon, we keep the momentum going by holding a prototype forum where everyone who built a project can present it to the company. Prototype forum usually happens a week after the hackathon, so it gives people a chance to fine-tune their projects and prepare them for live demos. Everyone gets the same amount of time at the forum — two minutes — to convince their peers that their idea should ship.

At my first hackathon in 2007, about 20 people showed up. At our most recent hack, last Thursday night, more than 500 employees came together to hack on apps for nonprofits, new internal tools, and major upcoming features. The camaraderie, productivity, and occasional insanity of hackathons have helped make Facebook what it is, and I have no doubt that they’ll stay core to how we build for years to come.