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Originally published June 27, 2012 at 9:13 PM | Page modified June 28, 2012 at 6:35 AM

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'Hackathon' at core of Facebook's office culture

By setting aside a day to let its engineers work on anything they want, Facebook aims to keep their creativity and job satisfaction riding high. In a sector where tech giants compete fiercely for top talent, that's key.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Denise Noyes stood in front of 80 fellow social-networking engineers on the 18th floor of Facebook's Seattle office on the northeast edge of downtown. Following the ring of a gong, she announced the start of Facebook Seattle's second-ever "hackathon."

"If you've never used spray paint, this may not be the best time to start," she said, eliciting chuckles from the crowd.

But just about everything else was fair game.

From noon to midnight Wednesday engineers were set free to pursue interests outside of their normal day-to-day work obligations.

Engineering director Peter Wilson says these events are ingrained in the company's identity. Late-night hackathons — events where software engineers collaborate on coding — were a handy way to zip out new code dating back to when CEO Mark Zuckerberg's first opened his company's Silicon Valley headquarters in 2004, an eternity in the tech community.

But they also keep engineers' creativity and job satisfaction riding high. In a sector where tech giants compete fiercely for top talent, that's key.

"Engineers value being able to have an impact, being able to direct themselves, having ideas," Wilson said. "A hackathon is just an extreme example of that."

While hackathons are normally an opportunity for programmers to flex their coding chops, this one extended well beyond the digital walls of ones and zeros. Rather than work on her laptop, Noyes, for example, decided to improve the office's amenities.

Normally one of two engineers who works on developing Facebook's video chat application, Noyes decided to solicit help from a coffee expert for her project.

"We're bringing in a barista from Trabant to teach us how to make fancy lattes," she said, referring to Trabant Coffee and Chai, a cafe with locations in Pioneer Square and the University District.

"I'm a little bit of a coffee snob," she added.

Brian Steadman, who normally works on Facebook's mobile engineering team, also stretched the definition of hackathon. His project involved Legos, paint and pop art. He pieced together Legos to form the background of a Roy Lichtenstein painting. He then painted the round connector tabs of each Lego piece to create a dotted image of a Lichtenstein work.

Steadman's only trouble? The plastic Lego base cannot easily be attached to Facebook's office wall.

"I might have to frame it," Steadman said.

Facebook, based in Menlo Park, Calif., is not the only company to pay its employees to work on projects outside of its main business plan. Google's 20 percent program, where employees were given one day each week to pursue their own computing interests, has been credited with developing Google Earth, among other applications.

Wilson, however, argues Facebook's hackathon is different. It's more limited in time, he says, and the goal is to mainly explore conceptual ideas without worrying about the toughest coding challenges.

"It enables you to focus on what is the core value," he said.

The project is appealing to at least one aspiring engineer. Parth Upadhyay is an intern who participated in Wednesday's hackathon. He is a junior at the University of Texas and, in a year, wants to find a job as a software engineer. Facebook is a contender for his services.

"They give you so much freedom," he said.

For hackathon, he wanted to develop an application that will allow Facebook users to briskly review their updates, similar to how users can view photos.

He admits, however, the idea is still in its infancy.

"I just started an hour ago," he said.

Karl Baker: 206-464-2046 or kbaker2@seattletimes.com.

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