Hackathons, For Love And Money

If you work in software development, you’ve no doubt heard of the concept of a hackathon: a marathon event (sometimes continuing through the night, with little to no sleep) where participants attempt to cobble (or hack, or jerry-rig) together a solution to a perceived problem or challenge. The term “hack” has a rich history and many meanings; in this case, it has nothing at all to do with penetrating computer security. Hackathon hacking only refers to playfully exploring the limits of what is possible and coming up with innovative (often kludgy) solutions to interesting problems.

The State Of The Hack Union

Hackathons arrived on the tech scene in 2005 (according to my esteemed colleague Jon Gottfried), but their influence was truly felt by around 2007, with the advent of mobile computing devices, the rise of powerful rapid application development frameworks, and the increased use of APIs (interfaces for exchanging data between systems) to make mashups (the act of combining various APIs and other libraries and features together into a new “app”). We’ve seen incredible innovations – entire startup businesses and wholly new industries – popping up all over the place, bolstered by these intersecting technology trends.

If you keep tabs on tech industry gossip, you may have heard about Salesforce and their Dreamforce conference, and how their million dollar hackathon has changed the landscape for events of this kind. They recently awarded their prize money, but few people are really impressed with the outcome. This ought to surprise no one; hackathon “scandals” are nothing new, and have occurred with greater frequency. Tech companies of all kinds have profit motives – they want to harvest the output of developers at their hackathons to make money. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s important to realize how different hacking for money is from hacking for love, how different the end results often are, and how people are going to feel about this kind of thing happening over and over.

Why Hack?

What does it mean to hack for love? Developers hack for love because they mostly just love to build things. Essentially, creators of any stripe will make things simply for the pleasure of making them or for the satisfaction of building something awesome and new. People who hack for love are passionate about new tools and technologies, they want to improve their skills and learn from others, they want to show & tell and share what they do with everybody. The people who are at a hackathon to hack for money will often say things when they pitch like: “I’ve got a great idea for a business” or “This will be huge” or they’ll flat-out say the hack will make a lot of money and they’re hoping to find co-founders who will work for equity…

The love and money motivations almost always work at cross purposes. However, hacking for love does not preclude hacking for money; you can hack something amazing together and it can go on to make you money.  On the other hand, starting out with hacking for money does preclude hacking for love, because the money and profit motivation outweighs everything else. It doesn’t help that the prize purses are getting bigger and bigger – the phenomenon of itinerant hackers moving from hackathon to hackathon to earn income is a real thing. There are people out there who repackage hacks they’ve been working on forever (even when the rules say they have to write new code); they slap a couple of new features on it, and get judged on well-honed and oft practiced presentations… and they’ll win a few thousand dollars every weekend.  Not a bad racket.

This sort of “professional hackathon hacking” is one of the things that started to drive me away from “mainstream” hackathons a couple of years ago. It drove me nuts to see people showing up with already coded projects, or “idea people” coming simply to get other people to build products for them for free. I became especially riled when someone asked me to mentor for a so-called social good hackathon sponsored by a major telecom corporation, and not a single one of the people pitching ideas was actually interested in doing social good of any kind – they were there to pursue their own self-interests and prize money.


However, hacking for love does not preclude hacking for money; you can hack something amazing together and it can go on to make you money.


In 2011, despite having become a bit disillusioned by hackathons, I found myself on board the NYC StartupBus and thought: “this will be a fun and crazy hackathon road trip, and I don’t really care about how it all turns out, so I’m just going to enjoy myself.” But as it turned out, by happy and fortunate circumstance, I found myself in the right place at the right time, because StartupBus is all about hacking for love.

The people who self-select and go through the vetting process to get on board StartupBus are completely nuts about hacking – and I’m not talking about just coding either, I’m also talking about designers who push the envelope with their techniques, and biz dev types who know how to work the systems and how to hack relationships and do great customer development. Buspreneurs are the crazy ones who really do “think different”. And when we all come out the other side, we’ve become part of something bigger, we’ve honed our skills and built up our confidence, and we’ve learned things about ourselves and about what we’re capable of.

This is why people who are passionate about hackathons get upset when “unsportsmanlike” things happen at this kind of event. People who are doing it for fun are competing with themselves and with time – they want to build something from scratch and see how much they can accomplish, or rapidly ramp up on a new language, and see what cool things they can do. So when they see others repurposing old code, or submitting their company’s product for entry with an API tacked on to it, or the corporate sponsor goes and changes all the rules and constraints on them, they will understandably get upset.

In Conclusion…

I’ll close this blog post with a coda on the recent acquisition of Hacker League by Intel / Mashery. I’ve been a great fan of Mashery for some time now, they’ve been a terrific supporter at many of the hackathon events I’ve organized, mentored, and attended. Mike and Abe are friends of mine, and I’m quite happy to see their side project turn into a nice little exit for them. (Check that previous link to a Pando article (Jon’s slide deck, too) which has some nice graphs and charts showing the growth of hackathons)

My great hope is that Intel will do the right thing and let Mashery and Hacker League continue on unchanged. It’s really important for those who hack for love to keep using free and open tools to keep working on civic and social good projects – like the world’s largest hackathon, the NASA International Space Apps Challenge, which needs to be able to use tools like Github to share their free and open source output with the entire world.

I’m very happy to see Swift working on Major League Hacking, because it’s clearly being done out of love just as Hacker League was.  I remember when some folks in the API Evangelist Mafia were talking with me about it a year and a half ago, but that conversation fizzled out pretty quickly – so it’s nice to see someone taking the concept forward.  It’s also my hope (especially since it’s academic focused) that the MLH becomes more like collegiate sports than professional sports, that it becomes more about learning, building community, and advancing the state of the art over becoming more about competition and leaderboards, and winning titles or money. It’s really important to keep that amateur / professional split to maintain the love / money separation of concerns.

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