2013-12-04

Are Company Hackathons Still Worthwhile?

For-profit hackathon organizers are threatening coder culture, crossing the line from engagement to exploitation.



Hackathons and Hack Days bring programmers, designers, and other creative folks together to work on interesting and fun projects. They’re opportunities to meet new people and build things you really care about. The best events reflect the DIY aspects of hacker culture that surface when business and money are out of the equation: when we can focus on building for the love of building. But corporate involvement and for-profit hackathon organizers threaten this culture and risk crossing the line from engagement to exploitation.

Hackathons have been around since the late '90s: The term was first used in 1999 when contributors to the OpenBSD project got together to work on cryptography software. Hackathons grew naturally out of open source software contexts--similar to open source, where many people contribute to projects in their free time, hackathons are often attended by professionals who build software every day for a living.

Now, interest in hackathons has exploded: It’s common for 10 or more events to run in the same city over a single weekend. Previously the realm of technology companies and grassroots organizations, hackathons are seeing more participation from mainstream brands such as food companies and retailers.

Attendees aren’t always as enthused as the organizers. Cynicism and “hackathon fatigue” is growing among would-be attendees. The benefits for companies participating in hackathons is clear: brand awareness among developers, feedback about their technical products, participation in unofficial research and development, and recruiting. But there must be equal benefits for the people participating. It’s gotta be fun and make people free to work on things they love. Having a focus on pitching or competing for cash makes an event sound an awful lot like work--that’s what developers and designers do during their day jobs, so why would they want to spend their weekends doing it, too?
If you want to earn money writing code or designing applications, you get a job writing code or designing applications. You don’t go to hackathons with the hopes of coming home with money or a chance to pitch to a group of VCs. An emphasis on monetary rewards for participating in a hackathon attracts only those interested in creating for money, which is a shaky foundation for any kind of community.

The good news: Not all hackathons fall into this trap. There are many examples of hackathons and other developer events that understand hacker culture and the DIY spirit it embodies. SuperHappyDevHouse is a regular event that was started in 2005 with the goal of bringing hackers and thinkers together to have fun and talk tech. It’s creation was a rejection of the business-focused aspects of Silicon Valley. SuperHappyDevHouse is a place to meet new people and talk about interesting things--not a place for pitches or talk of business models. Similarly, a number of hackathon franchises have tried to embody this spirit.

Comedy Hack Days, organized by Cultivated Wit, bring comedians, designers, and developers together to build “hilarious apps and hardware hacks.” The emphasis is on having fun and building things with like-minded people. Comedy Hack Day events have been held in New York, Boston, and San Francisco.

We try to practice what we preach here at SoundCloud when we participate in Music Hack Day. The first Music Hack Day was organized by SoundCloud’s Dave Haynes in 2009, and since then, Music Hack Day has become a global institution with events in over 20 cities in Europe, North America, and Australia. Events are typically led by local organizers who coordinate with a core group from companies including SoundCloud, The Echo Nest, Spotify, and SendGrid. This style of collaboration ensures that no company has control over the tone of a particular event.
Music Hack Days are non-competitive both in terms of not focusing on prizes and bringing together competitive companies to cooperate in organizing and sponsoring events. This environment of collaboration affects the tone of the event. The purpose is to have fun and build really cool music applications, not to pitch your app to a VC or to win a big cash prize. Furthermore, focusing on a single topic like music applications keeps the event rooted in the art of hacking rather than the business.

To further ensure that Music Hack Day events don’t feel too corporate or competitive, prizes are kept small and participation is always free. There is no standard sponsorship package--companies pay what they can to support the events. This prevents Music Hack Days from becoming pay-to-play events. There’s even a manifesto that outlines the values of Music Hack Days.

Music Hack Day even inspired an event called the Monthly Music Hackathon that takes place in New York City. Monthly Music Hackathons are small events that focuses on exploration and research in music technology. To further enhance the connection to art, the demo portion of the event is called a concert and all attendees are expected to participate.

There is still enthusiasm about hacker events. A recent Kickstarter campaign was launched to reunite the surviving original members of the Homebrew Computer Club (a legendary group of hardware hackers who met regularly in Silicon Valley in the '70s). The campaign surpassed its $16,000 goal.

This and the success of hackathon franchises like Comedy Hack Day, Music Hack Day, and the Monthly Music Hackathon show that the spirit of hackathons lives on: We just have to be vigilant against co-option from corporate interests looking to cash in on developer enthusiasm without giving anything but money back.

Paul Osman is the developer evangelist at SoundCloud, the world's leading audio platform, based out of Toronto. In this capacity, Paul is responsible for SoundCloud's API toolset, developer evangelism around the globe, and making it as easy as possible for third-party developers to build applications that use the SoundCloud API. Depending on the day, this can mean maintaining and improving SoundCloud's online documentation, writing technical articles and blog posts, coming up with creative inspirational hacks, or organizing or attending hacker events and doing presentations to groups of hackers on how to best use the SoundCloud API.

Prior to SoundCloud, Paul worked at Mozilla, where he led a small team of developers in all web development tasks related to the Mozilla Foundation. He developed Drumbeat.org, a Django application designed to allow people to promote projects related to Mozilla's core mission and values. The Drumbeat.org source code was also forked to build P2PU.org, an online resource for peer learning.

[Image: Flickr user Tomislav Medak]






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2 Comments

  • Just found this a bit late. I understand with and agree with parts of this but Music Hack Day has the same API's for pretty much every event Soundcloud, Echo Nest, Spotify, etc. How is having developers build off of those API's any different than a company sponsoring a hackathon?

  • Chris Ismael

    Interesting post! I agree with you on some points here, and that "hackathon fatigue" is becoming prevalent. However I would not completely discount "for-profit hackathon organizers" as the culprit. I've seen well-organized and well-attended hackathons because there's money involved (as dirty as that sounds). It would be naive to hide the fact that in a way, they're "startups" themselves, with aspirations to run successful hackathons. It just happens they need manpower/moolah to execute them.

    IMHO the problem lies in the confusion when labeling the objectives of the hackathon. "Who should we declare the winner? The one who makes a revenue-generating project, or the one that has the most creative approach to a problem (with no chance of getting funded)?". I like to call them "serious" and "fun" hackathons.

    Surprisingly, this sort of discussion almost never happens when planning a hackathon. Imagine how much less confusion there would be if a developer know what sort of hackathon he's getting into. I called this out in my post here https://medium.com/hackers-and...

    I think the hackathons you mentioned above fall under the "fun" hackathons too :) But I can imagine a developer coming out from a "serious" hackathon still happy, if he understood what the objectives were (to build a revenue-generating app).