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Hack Days: Not Just for Facebookers

Facebook
Facebook

Welcome to 2012, a time in which hacking is praised in S-1 filings.

Facebook, you may have, just maybe, heard, is going public. The IPO has set off a flurry of interest among investors and the media. Meanwhile, the company's youthful founder took the occasion to pen a letter about the fundamental mission behind his multi-billion dollar brain child.

"The Hacker Way," he writes is central to how Facebook does business:

The word "hacker" has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done…. 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.

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.

How does Facebook put this hacker ethos into practice and instill these ideals in its employees? Hackathons, says Mark Zuckerberg. "To encourage this approach, every few months we have a hackathon, where everyone builds prototypes for new ideas they have. At the end, the whole team gets together and looks at everything that has been built. Many of our most successful products came out of hackathons, including Timeline, chat, video, our mobile development framework and some of our most important infrastructure like the HipHop compiler."

A hackathon is an intriguing idea to drive talent towards risk taking, experimentation and, dare I type it, even fun. But can it work in firms that lack hackers, meaning those in older school industries that produce physical goods or analog services rather than code? Sure, says writer and entrepreneur Glen Stansberry in an American Express OPEN Forum post recently, explaining that a "hack day" might be a great idea for your business as well for several reasons:

It's exciting and morale boosting. "The event itself was far more exciting than I thought it would be," says Stansberry of his company's hack day.

It teaches the skill of shipping. "Shipping — as defined by Seth Godin — is defeating resistance and delivering a product, even if the product isn't perfect."

Having a hack day project "out there" gives you something to start improving. "When our Hack Day was done, we had something that was, in all honesty, pretty terrible," Stansberry admits. "But that's not the important part. The important part was the psychological boost of knowing that it was out there, and it's driven us to improve it daily."

If you think you need to be in the tech biz to reap these same benefits, think again. Nearly all business have a problem or project that you team could tackle for a hack day, according to Stansberry:

Most likely there's a new idea, or some aspect of your business that needs some serious work. A hack day is a perfect opportunity to tackle it. The important thing is that you take a day to make a minimum viable product and release it. So the question for you is this: what can you do to improve your business in a day? What can you build or re-work in a day that will allow your team to feel the success of shipping?

Could borrowing the concept of Facebook's "hackathon" benefit your business?

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