Facebook kicked off its historic initial public offering by holding another of the company’s fabled hackathons, which are all-night events that gather the social networking giant’s employees to work on products outside their office assignments.
Hackathon 31 was held on the eve of Facebook’s IPO and was a strong statement that even as it stands to raise billions, the company was still rooted in its “hacker culture.”
The word “hacker” has been sullied by years of use in media to refer to people who break into computer systems. The word originally meant a person who does clever tweaking of a system to improve its performance. “Hacking is ‘playful cleverness,’” said Richard Stallman, one of the world’s original hackers.
Facebook’s hacker ethos was referred to by chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg in his letter to investors earlier this year.
“As part of building a strong company, we work hard at making Facebook the best place for great people to have a big impact on the world and learn from other great people. We have cultivated a unique culture and management approach that we call the Hacker Way,” Zuckerberg said.
“The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo,” he said.
Zuckerberg said they painted “Done is better than perfect” on the company’s walls to remind its workers to continue to ship code, to release features.
“Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once,” he said.
“Code wins arguments,” is a common mantra in Facebook offices, said Zuckerberg. “Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win — not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people,” he said.
Zuckerberg said many of the company’s successful products came out of hackathons, including Timeline, chat and video.
In the letter, he summarized the hacker principle into five core values for how Facebook is run: focus on impact, move fast, be bold, be open and build social value.
“Move fast and break things” is one of the core principles in Facebook, Zuckerberg said. If you don’t break things, you probably are not moving fast enough, he added.
It remains to be seen whether Facebook keeps its hacker ethos now that it has gone public. But the company’s sharp rise into market dominance is the strongest endorsement of the hacker ethos that has long fueled innovation in technology.
Pick any innovative company and you’d find hacker ethos in its core values. Pick a struggling one and you are likely to find suits in control too busy meeting and reporting to actually build stuff.
The hacker culture drives innovation and it is something that should be encouraged in a company — whatever the industry. But for that to happen, you should have a corporate environment that encourages and rewards innovation and fosters the sharing of idea and a gung-ho attitude to build things.