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Facebook throws an open source hackathon

Facebook throws an open source hackathon

GraphQL at the center of Facebook hackathon action

Facebook’s Boston-area outpost is in Cambridge, close to MIT – they’ve just expanded from a smaller site and annexed a whole floor of a well-kept office building near Kendall Square Station. The first thing you see when you get off the elevator is a floor-to-ceiling pattern of blue lines that are meant to spell out the words “Ship Love” (Facebook’s unofficial motto) in binary.

It’s an airy, open-plan space, like many major tech company offices, with exposed concrete and pipes here and there, along with original art on the walls and the requisite amusements – in this case, a couple of Oculus Rifts, some musical instruments and a foosball table.

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Last Friday, the space played host to an open source hackathon around the theme of GraphQL, a sophisticated data-fetching query language originally developed by Facebook to help manage its vast stores of user data and released to the open source community in 2015.

The key feature of GraphQL, according to Facebook software engineer Robert Zhu, is that it allows clients to identify, up-front, the data that it needs from a database and collect it in a single “trip” – in contrast to a REST API, which requires more trips.

That’s a major advantage, and GraphQL has the added advantage of not being dependent on specific database formats, according to Sashko Stubailo, core developer at Apollo, the company co-sponsoring the hackathon. (Apollo creates commercial visibility and tracking products for GraphQL.)

“It’s something you can use with your existing back-end APIs, your existing databases, your existing servers,” he said. “It’s a nice layer you can put on top that makes your existing data much easier to consume.”

There’s a lot of socializing going on as participants arrive – Facebook has provided food and drinks, which make the whole thing feel quite casual, although several people are heads-down on their laptops already.

Hackathons are a big part of Facebook culture, according to site lead Ryan Mack, who noted that many core parts of Facebook, including the “like” button, were created in this way.

“The idea here is just to get everybody together – get some designers, product managers, engineers together – to just start to prototype things," he said.

To that end, Facebook partnered with local Javascript meetup groups – specifically, those for node.JS, angularJS and reactJS – and brought a group of roughly 30 people to Facebook’s offices to compete, in teams of two to four for the prize – a Samsung Gear VR headset apiece.

“GraphQL’s still pretty new – this is definitely the first time the three meetups of us have collaborated on this,” said Brian Sodano, head of the node.JS group.

It’s a fairly relaxed scene as the hackathon begins – Kuenzel, Zhu and the rest of the judges are wearing purple-patterened T-shirts to denote their status and declaiming the rules from the front of the room. The crowd is largely – though not exclusively – young and male, and has taken advantage of the free food more enthusiastically than they have the free beer.

The eventual winners – judged on the stiff and highly scientific criterion of “which project do the judges think is coolest” – create a clever web scraper that uses GraphQL to “intuitively traverse the DOM and navigate links between pages,” an uncommon ability, according to Zhu.

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