If you missed it, Mark Zuckerberg’s recent Facebook Live broadcast of their Facebook Prototype Forum is a must see. It’s not just a showcase of the amazing features and future products Facebook employees built in just 24 hours - it’s literally a business case of how company’s today can foster a culture of innovation and collaboration at scale.
The True Purpose Of A Hackathon
Every few months Facebook holds a Hackathon event - they usually run anywhere from 24 hours to a few days. Employees from all across the organization from different teams and locations come together to brainstorm and actually build some of the things they truly want and believe will make the experience for Facebook users better. There is only one rule - you can’t work on something related to your day job. Towards the end of the hackathon, all the teams have an opportunity to present and their peers then vote on which ideas are the best. The teams with the best ideas have an opportunity to present to the Facebook executive team including Mark himself, Chris Cox (Chief Product Officer), Mike Schroepfer (CTO) and Jay Parikh (VP, of Engineering) which is what you get to see in the broadcast (see bottom of this article for a link).
From a company perspective, it allows Facebook to explore new ideas that are not on their product development roadmap. Hackathons enable a cross-pollination of team members who would normally not interact on a day to day basis. It also allows Facebook’s employees to access and utilize the vast resources and infrastructure within the organization to actually build something. Many of the products from the past hackathons such as Facebook Chat, Safety Check and Facebook Groups have evolved into some of the most important features of the platform.
Prototypes Don’t Need To Be Polished, They Just Need To Work In The Beginning
As Mark highlights throughout the broadcast, the purpose is not to ship something that is fully polished, it’s more about getting to a point of where you can actually ship something that works. Some of the products that are selected by the executive team don’t actually see their end at the hackathon, they may actually be moved implemented into some part of the product roadmap where they can fit with other ongoing projects or stand out on their own. Once released the engineering and product teams work on future iterations and updates. They continue to refine the product based on user feedback and internal testing - it doesn’t need to be perfect. This is how it worked with Facebook Chat which evolved into Web Chat, Mobile Chat and then ultimately into what we use today as Facebook Messenger.
Caption: Messenger is a product that came out of the 2007 Hackathon and has become an integral part of the Facebook platform.
Talk Is Cheap, You Need To Build It
By actually building a prototype you move from an idea within your imagination to something actually tangible that you can play with and experience. When it comes to mobile this is something that is hugely important to really understand how your end user or customer will interact with a new product or feature. Chris Cox, CPO elegantly compared the process of building a prototype to that of making a film. You start out by jotting down some ideas, sketching out a storyboard and then shooting some scenes which you edit and refine. At each stage Facebook pushes its teams to driver further fidelity in the process, meaning to get to building an actual prototype.
Photograph by Carlos Serrao
Facebook’s Competitive Advantage
As Mark describes many organization like Facebook have amazing talent and resources but many just spend a lot of time talking about ideas. For Facebook Mark sees their ability to build products and solutions for their users as a way of making progress. The Facebook process of getting talent from all parts of the company to get together regularly, leverage their infrastructure and actually implement their ideas is a competitive advantage.
Jay Parikh, VP Engineering points out, Facebook has gotten really good at release velocity - they ship out updates on a daily basis for Facebook web version and on a weekly basis for Facebook Mobile. Because the culture of the organization is focussed on shipping products for their customers, when they identify a really good idea they are able to ship it out fast to the market and then rapidly refine it. This allows Facebook to seize opportunities that their people identify very early on.
Not everything that is built at hackathons is for the public - in Mark’s eyes internal development tools that sometimes come out of these events are just as important, since they help everyone within the organizations do their jobs better.
One of the internal tools that was featured in the broadcast was a “Dogfooder Panel.” Dog-feeding refers to the process of internal testing by the team, of an app or feature before shipping to users. This panel helped provide a breakdown of all the features being tested and assigned points to Facebook employees participating the most in the dog-feeding process. It has leadership boards and special badges to encourage employees to provide feedback on often neglected categories of empathy and accessibility within certain features being built.
Innovation Must Be Accessible To Everyone
The other thing that you will notice if you watch the Facebook Live video is the presence and impact of interns working with experienced Facebook engineers and product managers. You have interns who have only been with the company for a few months actually building functioning prototypes within 24 hours - for some this is their first formal engineering post. It is a testament to the ability of Facebook as an organization in terms of boarding, training and encouraging new members of the team, to actually absorb and participate in their culture of innovation and collaboration.
If you get a chance I’d recommend watching some of the broadcast - the last 5 minutes have a great Q&A session with the executive team that is worth watching. My favorite teams presented the Facebook Video Chat heads and the Hardware Facebook Live solution. Check it out, let me know what you think!