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Inside Facebook’s final Palo Alto Hackathon

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Outside 1601 California Ave. during Hackathon 28

Exclusive. On Dec. 13, Facebook held its 28th official “Hackathon,” an all-night event in which the only rule is that employees cannot work on any projects having to do with their day jobs. Facebook Hackathons have become a company tradition: They generally last from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., and are filled with beer kegs, pizza, Chinese food, electronic music and scores of happily geeky young people — think of it as a very large, very well-funded LAN party.

We headed down to Facebook to go inside Hackathon 28, since it was a particularly special one: This past week was the last hurrah for Facebook’s operations in Palo Alto, the California town in which the social networking company’s headquarters have been located for more than seven years. The company has been gradually moving its employees to its new campus in Menlo Park, Calif. over the past six months or so, and the old building at 1601 S. California Avenue in Palo Alto will be totally vacated by next week.

Facebook is not going far — Menlo Park is just a few miles away from Palo Alto — but the move is still significant as an emotional milestone. Tuesday’s Hackathon was billed internally as “the final hack at 1601” and was charged with an extra dose of energy, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg on site well into the night and dozens of programmers hacking away on new ideas. GigaOM had exclusive access inside the event, and we took some photos and videos of what went down.

First we sat down with Andrew Bosworth, or “Boz,” Facebook’s director of engineering. Here, he talks about what it was like at Facebook’s very first official Hackathon, taking advantage of “the remaining creative energy” at 1601 California Ave., and more:

Then it was time for the Hackathon to officially begin. Below is footage of the official kickoff at 6:00 p.m. PST, and our interview with Facebook engineer Pedram Keyani about why programmers thrive during late-night coding sessions, how Hollywood has hijacked the meaning of the word “hacker,” and more:

The vibe inside the Hackathon was, simply put, fun. Software coding is not typically an exciting thing to observe, but this was far more social than a normal day at an engineering office. Groups of people were talking pretty excitedly to one another, and most folks were using the Hackathon to work with new people or practice new things. Director of Engineering Jocelyn Goldfein, for example, said she would be using the night to polish up her user interface coding skills, as she spends most of her time during the day on more back-end coding projects. It seemed like a time where employees were stretching themselves and working outside of their comfort zone.

With Hackathons, Facebook is working to maintain the experimental, meritocratic, technology-first culture on which many startups thrive in their earliest days. Now, as the company grows in headcount and expands geographically, it will be increasingly challenging to retain that energy: As Andrew Bosworth mentioned, most engineers can no longer ship something they’ve developed at a Hackathon during the event itself, since the bar to actually deploy features on has raised significantly since the company’s early days. Making sure young and ambitious employees feel engaged and valuable is not an easy thing for any large company to do. But at the moment, Facebook seems determined to do everything it can to hold onto its hacker-centric roots and encourage spontaneity in its staff.

And finally, here are some photos from inside Hackathon 28:


6 Responses to “Inside Facebook’s final Palo Alto Hackathon”

  1. Mosaic Technology

    This is a great idea! Facebook is a company that seems to pride itself on innovation and what better to keep its best minds sharp than to give them a chance to go where their imaginations take them. I would love to see something like this in all different types of workplaces.

  2. Flawed idea. Start-ups are meritocratic because they are “starting” up. to get fresh or new ideas they would need some fresh or new people involved. A hungry man will teach himself how to fish. The well-fed just sit around talking about how great dinner was…

    • TJ Biddle

      Are you saying the idea of a hackathon is flawed? That is quite simply one of the stupidest statements I have read. It’s a fun brainstorming session and a way for people to branch out. People do this all around the world, and the fact that Facebook is able to keep up with the energy by being such a large company shows that they’re great to work for.