Hackathons rock

Raghu Mohan | Updated on January 22, 2018

If they’re about building, not business

Last month, an article on the secret lives of hackathon junkies was doing the rounds. It is the experience of a journalist who was a part of a week-long hackathon, which was also a bus journey, which concludes with a pitch, which the writer’s team won.

It is a fairly long read, and it brings out some unspoken truths about hackathon culture:

Nothing useful is ever created at a hackathon Given the lack of time, direction, objective and likeminded people, it is highly unlikely that a hackathon hack can ever be anything more than just that. There’s even a term for this f — Vaporware, because the idea will evaporate post the hackathon, as nobody will work on it.

Entrepreneur doesn’t mean rich The author talks about ideapreneurs, who’re passionate about starting up and probably know the valuation of the latest funded companies.

However, this doesn’t mean they’re well to do. In fact, many startup aspirants are broke all the time, they spend too much time at hackathons, trying to build a billion dollar company.

Hackers still need to keep their day jobs It’s almost a follow-up to the previous point, which is that building a company from a hackathon is next to impossible. As she says, eloquently: “The final secret of hacker culture is that Google is a black swan, a lightning strike, an outlier, a Goliath. Most hackers need to keep their day jobs.”

Basic question

However, one question struck me over and over again: Since when was a hackathon about building startups? The first hackathons were just programmers trying to solve a problem. They hacked to build products for fun. They hacked a new language because they could learn something new. Why do hacks need to be judged on its monetisation model?

One of the core concepts of a hackathon is creation over ideas. A developer’s time at a hackathon should not be judged on the prize they won or the investor they met. It should be based on what you did there, what you learnt and what you created.

Any regular hackathon goer will tell you that the amount of learning they get at every hackathon is much more than what they could ever do by themselves over a weekend.

A startup isn’t something that should be created at a hackathon. Businesses need to address a core problem and be able to solve it at scale. This needs great research. The idea needs validation. Other aspects need to be thought out too — operations, marketing, sales, team, etc, etc. Why would you want to rush this process and try to get it done over a weekend? Startups need to be thought out and a hackathon environment isn’t the best place to do so.

Wild imagination

Hackathons have and should always be about building products. Let developers build fun things without having to worry about its viability as a business. Let hackers allow their imaginations to go wild. There is even a remote possibility that this idea could become a billion dollar company, but that’s not why it should be done.

The hackathon is about building something — it isn’t a hackathon if the “hack” isn’t given the highest priority. A hackathon should be for programmers and developers. Sponsors and businesses must not be allowed to obstruct a hackathon’s core values. And it is very important to have good mentors and judges.

Prizes, wifi, food and all the other things are hygiene factors. If your hackathon doesn’t adhere to the core philosophy of building, it will be for nothing. You will leave your developer audience disgruntled. And a hackathon without developers is just another business plan competition.

The writer is marketing manager at HackerEarth

Published on September 07, 2015

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