Between the scandals rocking British tabloids and repeated breaches of banks’ customer information, hacking has a deservedly bad reputation of late. But there’s also an often overlooked upside.
At Facebook, the California-based social networking giant, hacking is also an important way for employees to learn and grow, said Stuart Crabb, the company’s director of learning and development.
“It enables people to have a limitless horizon,” he said. “That’s when you see how much pent-up energy there is in the organization.”
Hacking Gets a Bad Rap
In software and hardware engineering, there are two kinds of hackers: black hats and white hats. Like the bad guys in old westerns that served as inspiration for the name, black hats break into secure systems to pilfer intellectual property or customer information for criminal ends. White hats break in to identify security flaws or find a way to make a system work better.
It’s the latter that serves as the inspiration for Facebook’s hackathon, a marathon contest once every six weeks that allows programmers to showcase their skills, test new ideas and develop new products. Originally started as an engineering initiative, every department at Facebook now has its own version.
Ideas can come from anywhere in the organization and the hackathon is a way to surface those ideas that will make Facebook better for its users, Crabb said. “What makes an organization successful is its ability to innovate,” he said. “There’s absolutely no question.”
With a restless employee population of 2,500 composed of 66 percent Generation Y and 34 percent Generation X, the hackathons also serve as an important engagement and development tool. The short events boost energy and promote collaboration in pursuit of a common cause, in this case Facebook’s goal to help users tell their story and surround themselves with people.
“Really pushing hard on that message helps engineer how [employees] can play a part,” Crabb said.
Hacking as an L&D Tool
Within the learning department, hacking provides a useful tool to create high-impact development programs in a short time period. Crabb and his team look for major projects or issues that require a long development cycle and then try to develop a solution in a burst of activity.
For example, internal surveys showed that Facebook employees were restless about career opportunities and had the perception that there weren’t enough formal opportunities to further their development. Crabb said further investigation revealed that the problem was employees weren’t having a formal career dialogue with their managers.
The learning and development team took that challenge as inspiration for a two-day hackathon. At the end, the team had roughed out a career planning toolkit for every employee along with a tool for managers to use in working with them. Another hacking session led to a new 100-day on-boarding experience aimed at getting new salespeople up and running faster.
Rules of the Hack
While hacking makes the most sense for employees in technology and product innovation, companies can start small with any internal group and grow from there. At Facebook, it was the engineering group. “They decided they wanted to create this culture and it spread,” Crabb said.
The simpler the rules the better. Overly complicated, top-down mandates can be a hack killer. Facebook has only a few simple guidelines for hackathons:
- Everyone can participate.
- Nothing is off limits.
- Submit ideas to a hack coordinator to avoid repetition.
Simple, scalable rules are important but the real key to success is giving employees freedom to work on projects that inspire them personally. It’s not about compensation. It’s about creativity, imagination and applying individual strengths and skills to a challenging problem.
“It has to be something that people do because they want to do it,” Crabb said.
Mike Prokopeak is editorial director of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.