Facebook's Hack-A-Months Cause Disruption, Innovation

Yep, they are 30-day hack-a-thons—and they are helping launch big products, including Facebook Deals. Welcome to what one Facebooker calls "a playground for engineers."

hackathon

Tech giants such as Google to Facebook are famous for hack-a-thons, all-night marathon coding sessions where eager employees build something unrelated to their current projects. While a break from the usual grind helps free programmers for more creative pursuits, the one day time-limit can stunt innovation and lead to only tiny breakthroughs.

For truly disruptive products, Facebook needed a truly disruptive practice, so they stretched the hyper-focused concept of the hack-at-thon another 29 days, where employees do nothing but intensively build out ambitious projects. Among hack-a-month's many successes is Facebook Deals, the Groupon-like daily deal feature that vaulted the social networking site into the e-commerce industry (check out MTV's coverage of a Facebook hack-a-thon below).

"I can't imagine [Facebook Deals] happening faster without hack-a-month," says engineering manager David Ferguson.

At Facebook (and other web giants), new features are often run like mini-startups: Employees initiate projects by convincing their peers to get involved and then cooperate as relatively atonomous teams. Ferguson argues that hack-a-month offers experienced engineers the opportunity to make a persuasive prototype for unique projects. "We had been discussing [Facebook Deals] for a while," he says. Once engineer Brian Sa, whose hack-a-month project launched Deals, "was given the ability to spend all this time focusing on it, he built a prototype that was extremely compelling. And, once people could see it, and how it worked, they got excited about it, and that's how it picked up momentum."

Appropriately enough, hack-a-month isn't just disruptive for the product itself, but also for all the teams on which the engineer is currently with. Once a participant is selected, the remaining team members are given a few short weeks to absorb all the knowledge of their soon-to-be-absent colleague's contributions. "One of the benefits we see," continues Ferguson, "is that other engineers on that team get to learn some areas that they didn't know because the one engineer was working on it all the time."

The impact gets to the heart of the hack-a-thon philosophy: Diversity is more innovative than expertise. Rather than hire a coupon expert from somewhere like Groupon, Facebook prefers that their own engineers, who have expertise in social projects, bring a fresh perspective into the crowded daily deals arena. Or, as Ferguson puts it: "You build things on top of social, you don't try to build social into products."

For now, hack-a-months are reserved for experienced engineers, and have relatively few open spots. But the idea's popularity is growing and Facebook hopes to accommodate every employee that wants in on what another engineering manager, Pedram Keyani, calls "a playground for engineers."

Follow Greg Ferenstein on Twitter. Also, follow Fast Company on Twitter.

Read More: Inside Foursquare's Hack-a-thon: How Unleashing a Gang of Geeks Benefits Business

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