In theory I like the intent behind hackathons, but in practice I’m not a huge fan of actual hackathons. There are a handful of reasons really:
1. By their nature they are more show and tell, than actual ‘do’. It’s just not reasonable to think you can build something of 'real value’ in a compressed amount of time that a hackathon allows for. Sure you can 'start’ something awesome that has serious potential at 'real value’, but most people at a hackathon won’t actually do that (because the incentives of the event are stacked against doing it). So, rather than start something big, useful, and ambitious hackathons usually end up just being filled with people building something quick, dirty, and shinny…all show & tell, but no 'real value’.
2. They tend to be exploitative of developers. It’s really the developer’s fault for choosing to participate so I don’t feel bad about it. But the fact remains that hackathons are really all about getting developers to show up, push themselves beyond normal limits, and “show off” for the judges, companies, and other attendees. All of which are really just looking for potential hires, potential partners, and additional usage and use-cases for their own APIs and services.
In return for putting themselves through this pageantry (rather than just doing the same hacking at their own homes), and pushing themselves to their physical and mental limits, the developers usually get some food and drink and a (let’s be honest, slim) chance at a cool prize or two as well as some potential press.
3. They are billed as networking events, but it can’t be two things at once. You are either there to network or to work. If you’re there to network, then the whole 'hack’ thing really goes out the window and then what’s the point of a 'hackathon’…if you’re there to work, then you really don’t have the time/freedom to network because you’re on an insane deadline.
4. Most of the 'winners’, cheated. The spirit of a hackathon is supposed to be that you show up, throw together a team, come up with an idea, and then make it happen…all in about 24-48 hours. The reality is that most of the 'teams’ that do well at these things show up with a fairly baked idea, often a preset team, and sometimes even with a large percentage of the 'idea’ in some form of 'built already’.
It’s not that they are specifically “cheating”, it’s just a side effect of the reality of time constraints and some of the other disadvantages of hackathons I mentioned above. But it creates a huge disadvantage (or wakeup call) for those that attempt to stay true to the intent of a hackathon.
So those are the big reasons why I’m not a huge fan, or regular participant, of hackathons (well those and the facts that I have a family I enjoy doing things with rather than wasting time at 'industry events’).
That being said, even I am drawn in to the hype from time to time and have attended a few hackathons:
TechCrunch Hackathon in 2010
This was my first real exposure to a hackathon and honestly I was excited for it. I went in with the idea for APPSIGOT and didn’t really bother to try and network or build a team, I just showed up, hacked away for 24 hours, presented and then left (to play a softball game on no sleep). I didn’t even know I had earned an honorable mention until I saw the Techcrunch article a day or two later.
Bit.ly Hackabit in 2010
I attended the first of these events…but it wasn’t a traditional hackathon in that it was only a few hours long, didn’t offer prizes up, and I was already doing a consulting gig for bit.ly…so really all I did was stay late at the office one night and hack on my own thing. At that event I built the first version of instapaperfeed.com – which eventually grew to have a few hundred people using it before I closed it down.
Startup Weekend Lancaster in 2013
This was earlier this year, and I mostly jumped into it because my friend Charlie was one of the people helping to put it all together. I had intended to really dig into a team and help out (and was debating if I would pitch my own “coach wizard” idea), but I had some travel issues and didn’t get there until the last of the teams was presenting their initial ideas (and too late to add my own idea into the mix)…that combined with the fact that I didn’t “love” any of the ideas pitched, meant that I spent the weekend starting Coach Wizard on my own and really outside of the event (I did it physically 'at’ the event, but was really in my own world most of the weekend).
…and I bring all this up, because on Monday my friend Jeff pointed out a 'sports focused hackathon’ called On Deck Cup to me…and though my default is to usually skip these things, I decided I would make an exception and am planning on participating in this one!
Though I’m sure I’ll come out of the weekend with mixed feelings (or more likely, reaffirmed distaste for hackthons) I was sold on this one because of a few key things:
1. Coach wizard is a huge play in the sports realm, so just checking out an event with some companies and people interested in sports and tech. seemed like it could have some potential.
2. I’ve had an idea for a very simple, sports related, app that I’ve wanted to throw together for a few months now…but I haven’t wanted to take the time to sit down and actually hack it together…so now I can dedicate this weekend to that (so yes, I’m doing some of the 'cheating’ I mentioned above).
3. The app I’m going to be putting together is a *very* basic variation on one small feature I’m working on for Coach Wizard…so it will be a great opportunity to either get a small amount of validation for the idea, or some critical feedback to readjust some of my core assumptions.
4. On the outside chance I win something, it can/will mean some additional press and momentum for Coach Wizard too.
Not sure what will come of it all, but I’m sure I’ll make it fun one way or another…and so it’s time for, “GAME ON”.
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Kevin has a day job as CTO of Veritonic and is spending nights & weekends hacking on Share Game Tape. You can also check out some of his open source code on GitHub or connect with him on Twitter @falicon or via email at kevin at falicon.com.
If you have comments, thoughts, or want to respond to something you see here I would encourage you to respond via a post on your own blog (and then let me know about the link via one of the routes mentioned above).