What’s So Great About Hackathons?

Hackathon? What’s That?

I’m sure many folks unfamiliar with the phrase “hackathon” will wonder whether it involves breaking in to a computer or telecommunications system and “hacking” passwords or some such security thing. Mass media and other government / special interests have firmly associated the term “hack” with “criminal act” so it’s important to state up front that this is simply untrue.

To hack on something is to tinker with it: a gearhead who repairs his auto’s engine with his own handmade part would be a car hacker; a gardener who splices a lemon tree branch onto an orange tree would be a plant hacker. It’s in the very nature of humans to try to use tools in novel ways to solve problems, all the way back to our primate cousins shoving sticks into anthills (the first to hack on bugs?). It’s worth noting that there are also folks who identify as “makers” and that they’re close cousins to hackers, but they’re primarily about building physical objects more than tinkering with existing systems or objects.

Biologists report that female chimps and bonobos use tools more avidly than males.

So a hackathon is an event where, like a marathon, you spend a big chunk of time pushing yourself towards a goal – in this case, the goal is solving a problem. Hence, a “hacking marathon” or hackathon. There used to be a TV show called Junkyard Wars, which could be considered the maker equivalent of a hackathon, or you can make a comparison with the Iron Chef or Chopped cooking shows, where chefs try to create unique and tasty dishes with crazy constraints on ingredients.

We’ve Probably Reached Peak Hackathon

With the obligatory explanation of the term taken care of, I should probably next say that many feel that hackathons are already over; that they’ve reached the height of their popularity or usefulness, or that they’re passé or not a good use of time. It’s been a good number of years now since hackathons became a thing, and they’re now pretty regularly satirized and criticized… probably on the verge of becoming a mainstream concept, at any rate. But a number of the criticisms levied on hackathons have been on point for many events of this kind – such as:

  • They require a heavy commitment. Some feel there is an unspoken expectation that participation in a hackathon means giving up an inordinate amount of personal time, and receiving little or no compensation for work done. To be sure, many corporate interests have tried to take advantage of the trend to get free or low-paid work from their employees when they should give them weekends off, or from the public where the prize monies are nowhere near what 48 hours worth of work product are worth.
  • They tend to exclude underrepresented groups. The organizers of many hackathons target / market to young, white men who can code, and this group very singularly makes up the majority of hackathon attendees.
  • They encourage unhealthy behavior. It seems that the norm for nourishment at hackathons is pizza, junk food, alcohol, high levels of caffeine, and not getting any sleep. This is pretty common for college age kids, but generally doesn’t contribute to productivity or good moods.
  • They over-emphasize competitiveness. As prizes and notoriety in hackathons have increased, so has their competitive aspect. We see this culminate in events like TechCrunch Disrupt and the once infamous (but now annual) Salesforce Million Dollar Hackathon. There are even “professional” hackathon attendees who regularly travel around the world from event to event earning a living off of prize money and perks (which very nearly crosses over into fraud territory, as they often disguise their names or use aliases to keep passing off the same projects as new entries at various events with similar themes).
  • They place higher value on “original” work. Some of this ties in to the idea of celebrating competition – that it’s somehow better to come up with a new & original idea at a hackathon and start work completely from scratch than it is to continue work on an existing project or codebase. When originality is a competition requirement, it’s considered bad form to take preexisting work to an event and gain unfair advantage over others who are following the competition rules.
  • The end products often aren’t “real”, just “MVP”. Many hackathons emphasize the pitch over the execution; it doesn’t even matter if you built anything as long as the final pitch was good. Again, when special or corporate interests run the event, they will sometimes even change the rules of the event on the fly and offer their prize to the team they just happen to like better, rather than the one that fulfills all the previously stated requirements or judging criteria – regardless of whether or not the product is “real” or if other products are more fully realized.
  • Projects created at hackathons rarely see any follow-through post-event. This is an extremely valid point, and difficult to address. Often teams formed at hackathons consist of strangers who have just met at the event and just share a common interest around working on a particular idea, so to carry on with a project afterwards could require an ongoing relationship with the members of that team, or at the very least a publicly available output that is accessible by anyone who wants to “pick up the torch” later.

There can certainly be a lot of back-and-forth discussion about all of these criticisms. But it’s obvious that a lot of “brogrammer” culture and elitist thinking can be plainly seen in the patterns listed above – the cults of originality and superiority reign in many hackathons, and suffer from the needless machismo that proliferates in places like Hacker News and in Silicon Valley in general. It’s all strikingly similar to the same language you see within so-called “startup culture”, and indeed there are very close ties between hackathons and tech startups, when venture capitalists use hackathons as a modern-day Coliseum and Great Caesar Michael Arrington decides to award the TC Disrupt prize to yet another company he’s invested in.

“It’s like Uber for pet costumes!”  THUMBS DOWN

It’s all overly romantic, and it’s very unfortunate – but I’m here to tell you that there is a better way to have a hackathon, and that hackathons don’t have to proliferate any of this all-too-typical bullshit.

It Is Still Possible To Organize A “Good” Hackathon

How do I know this? Because I’ve done it, multiple times.

Of the criticisms listed above, I think three of them are the most warranted and most relevant to the marathon format: the commitment level, the end product quality, and the follow-through on projects. As for the rest, I’ll explain what the community I’ve co-founded, Space Apps NYC, and its parent, the NASA International Space Apps Challenge, have done to prevent those kinds of problems from occurring.

A quick digression about the International Space Apps Challenge: it is an annual all-weekend hackathon held each year by NASA, what they call an “innovation incubator” program. NASA’s Open Innovation program started the event in 2012, and it has grown each year in size and scope; in April of 2014, there were 90 locally organized sites running the event all across the world, and nearly 9000 participants took part in solving challenges NASA set forth. Here in New York City we have held the event all three years and as a result have established a nearly 500 member community of “space hackers”. It is a diverse group of scientists, engineers, artists, storytellers, parents, kids, students, businesspeople, designers, developers, subject matter experts… you get the point.

Now, back to the topic of preventing hackathon problems: to be honest, there isn’t any magic to it at all. Some of it is just forethought, and the rest of it is due to the set up of the hackathon.

Hackathons are for everyone. They are not just for coders or experts, they aren’t just for one particular group of people, and they don’t have to be all about competition and the “next big thing” in tech. Hacking is problem solving, and hackathons are marathon problem solving sessions. There’s no denying that the forces of bro have held hackathons that are non-inclusive and detrimental to individuals and even to whole industries; but that does not mean that the hackathon format itself is without merit. The name “Space Apps Challenge” is a little bit misleading; when NASA provides the challenges for the hackathon, it includes many types of problem statements that can be solved without writing a single line of code. Literally anyone of any background at any skill level can take part – we have even had small children working on problems, because we run a family friendly event.

NASA mandated that the Space Apps Challenge would be completely free and open to the public, and that anyone would be welcome to come and help solve the challenges. Some use the term “radical inclusivity” to describe this practice, and we take it to heart when we hold our hackathon. NASA invites the entire world to participate, because good ideas can come from anyone, anywhere.

When it comes to having underrepresented groups attend your event, the secret is: INVITE UNDERREPRESENTED GROUPS. It reads as facetious but it’s the truth – you have to market and advertise to ALL the demographics you want to attend your event. And it’s not just inviting them, it’s also about being inviting to them. There are obvious and blatant uses of language and imagery that will absolutely discourage people from attending your event, like a picture of a bunch of white bros drinking beers and slouching over their laptops. This is not a welcoming and inclusive image for anyone who isn’t a white, male coder geek. It should also go without saying that a Code of Conduct is required both to empower the event organizers to act accordingly should problems arise, and to send a message to everyone that you are dedicated to providing a safe and welcoming environment for all. (Here’s our Code of Conduct, by the by, feel free to reuse and remix it).

Students from the Pathways In Tech high school with Astronaut Ron Garan and Jenn Gustetic of NASA

The solution to providing a healthy environment is equally obvious: don’t provide junk food or encourage unhealthy behavior. This year we had about 150 attendees; we went to CostCo and purchased healthy, organic juices, fruit, and snacks (and yes, even a bit of candy too as a late night treat) for approximately $750.00. We provided water, but no soda. There were four meals served over the 48 hours of the weekend and each of those offered healthy choices from various caterers. NO PIZZA! We also tell people to follow the “5-2-1 Rule”: get a minimum 5 hours of sleep, 2 meals, and 1 shower each day.

The problems of competitiveness and of the cult of originality are difficult ones, but not insurmountable if you are willing to go the “free and open” route with your event. Last year I wrote “Hackathons: For Love Or Money” and emphasized the differences between hackathons with prizes / money at stake versus hackathons done for the love of hacking on a problem. Where there’s money, there’s competition, that much is plain; so I suggest that you eliminate money and big ticket prizes. People will still come to work because they are passionate about solving problems – and frankly those are the people you want, not the opportunists who just want to make a quick buck or promote themselves. Also, all the output of the event must be made with free and open source software. There are no commercial solutions allowed, and teams must upload everything they create to public repositories at Github.

NASA provides the problems that need to be solved for the Space Apps Challenge; there are solid goals to pursue before the event even starts, and NASA encourages international collaboration between teams across the world who want to work on the same problems and solutions, using online collaborative tools. Give your hackathon clear themes and define narrow problem domains. There is still usually a “pitch” where someone makes a quick statement about the type of solution they want to make to tackle a particular problem, and that is how they recruit people to join them on a team. But establishing the challenges up front means that multiple teams can continue to work on solutions (or even work in parallel on different parts of the same solution) not just day after day but even year after year, adding to the body of previous work.

What Happens When You Run A Positive Event

I can’t say that I yet have good solutions to the other three problems (the commitment level, the end product quality, and the follow-through on projects). When it comes to an individual’s ability to commit, there’s really no way we can give a person everything they may need to help them commit – we make sure our Space Apps site is a family friendly environment, but we haven’t yet been able to provide full-time childcare on site. It’s something we hope to achieve in 2015. And really, running a marathon isn’t for everyone, either! With end product and follow-through, the best we can do now is to help people define limited scopes and understand what can be accomplished in limited amounts of time, and emphasize that a small working solution is better than no solution at all.

In spite of the above, I find that the aftereffects and benefits of attending a positive hackathon like Space Apps NYC are manifold:

  • A real opportunity to build skills and gain knowledge. In a hackathon environment, you can both learn from an in person mentor and become someone else’s mentor; both of those circumstances are fantastic learning opportunities. Being a teacher and having to explain things to others gives you a better understanding of the things you teach. And while working under time pressure and deadlines can be stressful, it can help you learn your limitations and push you to achieve more than you may have thought possible.
  • Discovering new ways to learn and think. Working with strangers and forming interdisciplinary teams exposes you to situations and scenarios you don’t normally encounter. You can find out about tools you didn’t know existed, or concepts or analogies that exist in one discipline that don’t in the ones you’re familiar with. This kind of cross-pollination and brainstorming is pure gold, really.
  • The chance to make new friends. What’s great about going to a hackathon with clearly defined themes is that you will end up meeting people you would never normally meet in day-to-day environments or at the same old networking events – but you’ll automatically have common interests because you’re both there for the same reasons.
  • The satisfaction and fulfillment of making a real impact. The best thing about the Space Apps Challenge in particular, and in “free and open” events in general, is that your solutions have the potential to help people everywhere. For social good oriented hackathons, this is seriously mandatory stuff – you can’t truly say you’re running an event for social good if there are commercial interests at the bottom of it, either on the part of the organizers or the participants.

I hope you found all this rambling useful. Thanks for reading to the bottom!

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