“Yes! We have elegance!” says a student from the University of Waterloo. Then he pauses, and his shoulders slump. “Actually,” he adds, “I don’t know what the fuck this is.”
He points to a botched graphic on his computer screen, and his fellow students crowd around. They talk quietly among themselves, making suggestions here and there, and ultimately, they find a way of achieving something at least a little closer to elegance.
This is what happens at a Hackathon. If you’re a spectator, it’s not exactly riveting stuff. But if you’re a participant, it’s a gas — particularly when you’re competing in building number 4 on the campus of Facebook’s Palo Alto headquarters. These students aren’t just hacking for fun. They’re hacking for a job with one of the biggest names on the net.
Facebook, Google, and other tech giants use events like this as recruiting tools. Sports teams hold combines to assess prospective players. Internet companies hold Hackathons to size up developers. They throw coders into a large room and give them a task or a problem to solve, and if their solution is good enough, they win some cash and a trophy — or maybe a call from the Facebook HR department.
The coders from the University of Waterloo make up one of 14 teams in the competition, each charged with building an application in less than 24 hours. This particular Facebook Hackathon — which began on Thursday and runs into Friday — is just for college students. “We told them to think of their day and asked, ‘What annoys you?’” says Clifton Tay, a Facebook recruiter who helped organize the event. “’Now build an application to solve it.’”
By Friday morning, empty Red Bull cans and take-out containers are spread across the desks, leaving just enough space for keyboards and monitors. At the end of the room, the Facebook staff monitors the action quietly, doing their own work and answering intermittent questions from the students.
A team from the University of Washington has built an application — Spunby.me — that let’s you grab music from one machine, stream it to another, and play it in sync on both. The team crowds around two monitors as The Police plays on one computer and arrives on the second — almost in sync. They look at one another and muster a few wary smiles.
“No one’s slept,” Ryan Ewing, a member of the UW team, tells Wired.
“That’s the secret of success!” his teammate chimes in, without looking up from his Java code.
This Facebook Hackathon is a tad more mature than the one portrayed in The Social Network, the recent blockbuster movie about the company’s early days. In the film, Mark Zuckerberg and company coaxed applicants into booze-infused coding binges. This week, the drinks aren’t any stronger than Red Bull.
Paul Tarjan — a Facebook “Web Hacker,” as it says on his business card — manages the engineering side of the Hackathon, and he says that the biggest goal of the competition is to find prospects that fit with the breakneck pace of Facebook’s culture. They’re not looking for elegant coders. Facebook doesn’t even look at the code when it declares a winner. A poster that reads “Done Is Better Than Perfect” in bold red letters towers over one team.
“This competition is based on 50 percent idea and 50 percent implementation,” Tarjan tells Wired. “We don’t care about monetization potential. We just want to see a hack of something useful.”
Facebook only invites 14 schools to participate in the competition, but the schools on the list may change. Not every winner gets a job, but they have the inside track. “If you’re a part of Hackathon,” Tarjan says, “our HR will have that much more data on you during the hiring process.”
Not everyone finishes. A single coder won a preliminary Hackathon at Stanford University, but Facebook told him he couldn’t compete in the main event without a full team, so he recruited another three students on the fly and the group didn’t exactly mesh. At some point during the night, he threw up his hands and dropped out.
But the rest plow though. At the end of the 24 hours, the teams migrate into the Facebook cafeteria and begin presenting their products to the judges — various Facebook engineering directors. Some presentations go off without a hitch, others are marred by faulty demos, bad connections, and, yes, bad code. Some presenters play it cool and work the audience with humor. Others sound a little shaky. But all in all, exactly what you’d expect from a room full of young, eager kids.
The winner? Princeton University, for an app it calls Accessorize, a slick tool that helps both men and women with their daily fashion choices — certainly something that would fit nicely into the Facebook culture. The prize: $500 each. And that inside track.