Here’s How Facebook Wants to Keep Its Engineers Happy

Last week, Facebook formally announced “Hackamonth,” an internal initiative that allows some engineers to leave their team to work on a side project of their choosing. The goal is to prevent burnout among the staff and should result in some cool new products.

In fact, it already has. Over the past year, Facebook tested out Hackamonth with 35 engineers who were encouraged to submit project ideas requiring about a month’s worth of work. Each participating engineer then voted to join the project they found the most interesting. The three most popular projects became the first pilot Hackamonths.

The results were impressive: Facebook’s new Deals feature was actually born out of one of the three pilot Hackamonth projects, Facebook spokesman Slater Tow told me this week. Deals started as a Hackamonth pilot led by Facebook engineer Brian Sa and was initially dubbed “Paid Deals.”

Starting this week, Hackamonths are now available to any Facebook engineer who has worked on the same project for more than a year. At the end of a Hackamonth, engineers can choose to either go back to the old project or stay on the new one. According to the company, Facebook hopes to have around 10 percent of its engineers working on a Hackamonth at any given time.

The Hackamonth idea is an extension of Facebook’s longtime tradition of engineering “hackathons,” overnight events complete with beer, food, and DJs. During hackathons, employees must follow just one rule: They can’t work on anything related to their day jobs.

“For engineers, hackathons are opportunities to dive into any other project they’ve had their eye on. It’s a chance to shake things up for a night,” Tow said. “Hackamonth is a way to perpetuate this hackathon mentality into a full month.”

The parallels to other institutionalized burnout prevention tactics, such as Google’s 20 percent time program, are clear. What’s interesting about Facebook’s Hackamonth is that retention initiatives aren’t usually associated with venture-backed companies; the potential for a cash-out from a sale or IPO is usually enough to keep employees around. At nearly seven years after its first round of venture capital investment, Facebook is at an interesting spot that stretches the definition of startup (for reference, Google (s GOOG) held its IPO five years after its first venture funding round). The Hackamonth initiative further solidifies Facebook’s status as a more mature company — albeit in a state of protracted adolescence.