At Facebook, hackathons for advertisers too

March 13, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

Facebook's hackathons are a cornerstone of the company's management strategy -- not just an engineering exercise.

By Jessi Hempel and Miguel Helft

facebookFORTUNE -- Hackathons aren't just for engineers at Facebook. Sure, the hacking culture first took root among the company's coders, where frequent late-night workfests have produced some of Facebook's most popular features like Chat and Timeline. But in recent years, many of the company's business divisions have embraced these fast-paced brainstorming sessions to prototype new ideas in marketing and sales or even to make progress on the company's annual budget.

In short, hackathons are the engine of CEO Mark Zuckerberg's broader management strategy. It's a disciplined approach to continuous improvement and iteration that he has christened "The Hacker Way." In his recent letter to investors, Zuckerberg explained, "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."

MORE: How to get a job at Facebook

On the engineering side of the business, a hacker may be the youthful engineer who mocks up a new feature for your profile. But on the business side, a hacker might be the marketing executive who throws together a creative way to incorporate videos in a brand campaign. The common thread is the do-it-yourself nature of Facebook's approach to solving problems. To crib a phrase printed on posters hung across the company's monstrous new campus: "Move fast and break things."

In sales, for example, the company will sometimes hold hackathons for larger clients. Former salesman Kevin Colleran remembers participating in several of these events as his colleagues tried to hammer out new ways brands could use Facebook. After brand partner P&G (PG) signed on to be a major sponsor for the Olympics, for example, Facebook held a day-long event to come up with compelling ways P&G could use the platform. A slew of marketers, global strategists, and media & entertainment producers who don't normally work on the account gave up a day to brainstorm together. "It's not actually coding but it's inspired by and has the same name as what a Facebook hackathon would be," says Colleran, who rose from his original gig as Facebook's first sales employee back in 2005 to manage the P&G account before he left Facebook last summer.

MORE: Inside Facebook

This hacker ethos extends beyond Facebook to its relationships with partners as well. At Buddy Media, where CEO Michael Lazerow and his team build social marketing software for advertisers, employees have long participated in Facebook hackathons to dream up new ways for brands to reach their customers on Facebook. Says Lazerow, "There's been a feeling from the beginning that we are all inventing this together." And Lazerow has adopted the strategy at his own company. "We do regular hackathons with our own clients," he explains.

Of course the concept doesn't always translate perfectly to every aspect of the business. Shortly after CFO David Ebersman arrived, he conducted a hackathon in the finance division to draft a multiyear budget. He described it as a "nice tie-in with the culture" rather than a serious financial planning effort. Nonetheless, as Facebook grows, these exercises help all 3,200 employees connect to Zuckerberg's vision for the company -- and advance new ideas quickly.

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