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Facebook’s Secret Sauce: The Hackathon

Posted on June 19, 2015

If only we all could be so fortunate to work with engineers as driven as the ones working at Facebook. Every six or so weeks, the company holds an internal 'hackathon' where teams of engineers work together all night, typically from 10 pm to 6 am, to create a working prototype of a new feature.

This process has produced a number of successes at the Silicon Valley giant including the timeline, video, like button, and chat features. In fact, an intern at a hackathon created the "tagging in comments" feature that was so popular everyone was surprised it didn't already exist and was shipped to one billion Facebook users in two weeks after conception.

Hackathons lie at the core of Facebook's stunning development speed and have helped fuel the company's meteoric growth and destruction of the competition (see: MySpace - in 2006 the world's most popular website).

And now companies in other industries are embracing the concept. Wall Street stalwart Goldman Sachs recently hosted a hackathon at its NYC headquarters. More and more companies, even in the staid industry of banking, are realizing to avoid being blindsided by the competition, it's necessary to bring a spirit of innovation into their company culture.

But it's hard to imagine auto plant workers getting excited to work all night creating new cars. Are hackathons a concept that can be imported into other industries, companies and departments? Below are four things to encourage innovative hackathon thinking at your company:

1. Issue a Challenge

Good managers and coaches know that nothing motivates like a challenge. In fact, the first hackathon was credited to John Gage of Sun Microsystems, when he challenged JavaOne Conference attendees to write a program in Java for the new Palm V back in 1999.

Throwing down the gauntlet is the starting point for any hackathon and there is nothing stopping managers from issuing challenges to their reports. In using a good idea management solution, managers can pose questions such as, "What feature should be added to the product?" or "What is the best way to reduce costs in your department?" and sit back and watch the ideas flower.

2. Encourage Cross-Department Communication

Hackathon projects at Facebook usually involve a diverse set of people from different departments in the company - anyone from engineers and lawyers, to designers can participate. Encouraging different departments to work together can drive innovative thinking and spur more creative thought.

This is, in fact, how Apple makes great products. Normal product development in other companies follows a linear path: designers come up with a look and hand it off to engineers who then hand it off to manufacturing who then hand it off to sales. Steve Jobs changed this model by instead creating "concurrent processing." In his system, all the groups - design, manufacturing, engineering and sales - meet continuously during product development to offer their perspective. This ping-ponging of ideas and insights among different groups creates rock-solid products like the iPhone.

3. Create a Judgment-Free Zone

Nobel Prize winning scientist Linus Pauling said it best, "The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas." With this in mind, managers should encourage employees to share their ideas and suggestions openly and without fear of punishment or “being wrong.” Using this technique to collect a full range of ideas to explore, the best can be selected from a much larger group.

4. Distribute Rewards and Recognition

As a man who lead an army that dominated 19th century Europe, Napoleon knew a few things on how to motivate followers. Perhaps his best quotation on the subject was, "A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon."

Napoleon may have been oversimplifying his case but his point was clear - people will work very hard to distinguish themselves and stand out among the pack. By distributing rewards and recognition for innovative thinking, employees are given a clear path to helping the company and, in so doing, helping themselves.

Often the only thing holding employees back from making meaningful contributions is the lack of a proper communication channel. Employees are burning for a way to stand out - open the option to them!

While strictly formatted ‘hackathons’ might be specific to Facebook and other tech companies, there’s no reason other organizations can’t take the underlying principles behind them and apply them to their own companies. Innovation is going to happen either way - managers can either drive it in their own organization, or be blindsided by the innovations of their competitors.

Is your organization ready to take the next step towards monumental change? If so, contact the Vocoli team at 888.919.5300 today so we can help you “hack” your way to success.

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