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Kicking off a Facebook hackathon, with Pedram Keyani, left.

Secrets Of Facebook's Legendary Hackathons Revealed

Meet Pedram Keyani, the coder behind the nocturnal events that shake up Facebook. Yes, we're talking kegerators, Zuck's hammock—and coding.

Pedram Keyani is a manager of engineering on Facebook’s “site integrity” team, meaning he works to keep your account safe from spam and other threats. One of Keyani’s greatest contributions to Facebook, though, may be his unofficial role in organizing and kicking off Facebook’s hackathons, which are held internally about every six weeks. We caught up with Keyani to talk about kegerators, Mark Zuckerberg’s hammock, and how a burst of scrappy nocturnal creativity can change the direction of an Internet behemoth.

FAST COMPANY: When was your first Facebook hackathon?

KEYANI: I think in my first month at Facebook. I joined over five years ago. I told my wife, I’m not coming home, I’ll be staying at work, and she kept prodding me: “You’re staying at work?” It took me 20 minutes to explain to her, we’ll be making cool things, and everyone at the company does this. I went to my first hackathon and fell in love. The next day I was totally beat but couldn’t wait to do the next one. Two weeks later I asked some people, “When’s the next one?” and they said it wasn’t planned. I sent out an email saying, “Hey, I’m going to get some Chinese food and hack all night.” It was super successful, and most of the company was there. The next day Mark Zuckerberg came to my desk and said, “That was awesome.” So over time, it became a thing, where every six to eight weeks I asked if people wanted to hack.

This seems like every company’s dream. I can’t imagine an auto plant getting its workers psyched about a "building-cars-a-thon." Do people get overtime for this?

We’re not hourly employees. We’re salaried. Some people come at 4 in the afternoon each day and leave at 4 a.m. No one keeps track of time. The other thing about hackathons is that the most critical rule is you can’t work on the same thing as your day job. It’s a way to experiment with ideas in a low-cost way. Lots don’t make it into products, but every hackathon tends to result in four or five things implemented on the site. A couple have changed the direction of the company.

For example?

Chat. For a long time, there was a lot of negative pressure in the company against building a chat client. The thing around here is, code wins arguments. You could argue something for two days, or you could just make it and prove your point in an hour.

How do people form groups during a hackathon?

We have a group called Hackathon Ideas, and in the week leading up to a hackathon, people post ideas, and groups form organically. One project I worked on two hackathons ago, it was four interns, an infrastructure engineer, someone from our sales team, and me. It worked beautifully, and now a lot of us are friends—people who didn’t talk to each other or know each other before.

As you grew into the hackathon organizer, how’d you decide to hold them every six weeks?

It turns out if you do it more often than every six weeks, people are like, “Dude, I have a family. I need to go home. I can’t disrupt my life like this.” But after six or seven weeks, if I wait too long, I’ll start getting two or three emails a day asking about it, and it’s clear we need another hackathon.

What are some traditions around the hackathons?

We always get Chinese food at the same place, Jing Jings in Palo Alto. Even though now we’re bigger and further away, because of tradition we go to the same place. People pile up food and hack for hours. Usually about 20-30% of people, by 3 in the morning, are asleep or at home. Then steadily every hour after that about 10% of the people drop off until at 6 in the morning I shut the thing down. Having done 30 of these things, I’ve learned an important skill: The Tuesday of a hackathon, I always find time to take a two-hour nap. I’ll find a conference room somewhere. In the previous location, we were four blocks from Mark’s house, and I said, “Hey, you have a hammock in your backyard—can I sleep there?” He said, “That’s silly, just take the key,” and I’d crash on his couch.

What’s the hardest you’ve laughed at a hackathon?

I built a thing called "Keg Presence" with my friend George. He had a startup that didn’t do very well, but one thing left over from his startup was a kegerator. We thought, “We have to figure out a way to bring this to work and not get fired.” We came up with the idea of putting a computer on top, having people swipe an employee badge, and it would take a picture of them with their beer and that would go in their news feed. At the hackathon in August of 2009, we wheeled in this kegerator and went to work as quickly as possible. We tested it, and photos of both of us drinking our beer populated everyone’s news feeds. All of a sudden we saw heads popping up around the office: “Hey, where’s the keg?” Within 10 minutes, there was a line of 15 people. We killed the keg that night.

But how do you scale that for a billion users?

That’s a lot of beer. I don’t know if we could scale that. But the basic concept has grown. Basically what we did is make a way for a physical interaction to be the equivalent of entering your user information and password and entering content on the site. The basic idea is, how do you marry Facebook with the physical world?

For other non-coding companies, how can they get the spirit of a hackathon at their workplace?

Lots of other groups—legal, HR, business development—use hackathons to rethink how they do their job, or how they can restructure what they’re doing. I think the core idea is to take ideas you haven’t had a chance to focus on and think about them in a different way. Lots of companies have the notion of a “think week,” a week to brainstorm other things. It doesn’t have to be in the middle of the night. If a company has hired the right people and trusts its employees to have good ideas, it should trust them to have the free time and autonomy to come up with amazing things the company should explore.

This interview has been condensed and edited. For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who'd be a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

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