Facebook rethinks its 'hackathons' with an eye toward mobile

The event's longer structure could facilitate more careful mobile product development, one engineer said

Facebook is retooling its famous "hackathon" all-night coding workshops to give engineers more time to conceive new products, hopefully with a focus on mobile.

The hackathons, a longstanding event at the company where "hacking" is central to the corporate mantra, have previously run as anything-goes, all-night workshops in which employees think up new product concepts and develop rough prototypes. If they impress, those prototypes sometimes end up as commercial products.

Some of Facebook's most popular features, including the "Like" button, Timeline and Chat, were conceived during hackathons, so they play an important role.

Thursday's event, dubbed "Project Mayhem," began at 11 a.m. and will continue until 2 p.m. Friday. When it concludes, engineers get three minutes to pitch their ideas on stage at a prototype forum.

With the more flexible structure, Facebook wants to encourage more employees to take a break from their day-to-day work and get involved in coding.

"It's like, 'let's take this day off to do this, and then if I need to get more done, we can hang out and finish at night,'" said Facebook engineering manager Pedram Keyani, who organizes the hackathons. About a couple hundred employees gathered outside on Facebook's sprawling campus in Menlo Park, California, for the event's kick-off. Some watched overhead from office windows.

Project Mayhem is also the first hackathon to offer classes to employees, on topics including PHP programming, data visualization and even juggling, Facebook said.

The longer hackathon could help facilitate the development of mobile products specifically, which often require more careful planning and development than Web-based products, Keyani said.

Recognizing the growing importance of mobile, Facebook put smartphone platforms at the heart of its development last year, but there are new considerations for mobile. While Web-based products can be pushed out gradually to select users, once an app goes live in the Apple App or Google Play Stores, it is out there for everyone, he said.

"There is a lot of focus now on mobile, without the same flexibility as the Web," Keyani said. "We're just adapting."

This year's longer hackathon could also encourage employees to use more time to build bigger prototypes that couldn't be built in a few hours, said software engineer Bob Baldwin.

"The prototype may not be an exact solution of what we want to ship, but it could at least give us something to look at, play with and see how it works," he said. "And we could see what type of reaction people have internally."

During an afternoon tour of Facebook's offices, engineers did not say much about what types of projects they were thinking about. Some, however, did describe early stage efforts to improve the coding in Facebook's back-end infrastructure to make it more efficient. Another said he was considering doing something with emoticons.

On mobile, Facebook reported during its first-quarter earnings announcement on Wednesday that its monthly active users had increased by 54 percent to 751 million. The company has just over 1 billion monthly active users total.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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