Why I Love Hackathons

Posted on Jan 14, 2015 in Get Involved, GWOBlog
Why I Love Hackathons

Two weeks ago, my friend Omer Zak shared a blog post from Infotropism on his wall called Why I Don’t Like Hackathons by Alex Bayley aged 39 1/2. Whenever I see a post like this, I want to run to the person who wrote it and invite them to one of our hackathons because nearly always, the criticisms they have of this event format are based on what I would consider bad practices.

Now, let’s face it. I’m quite opinionated when it comes to hackathons. I’ve run quite a few of them, and Geeks Without Bounds is one of the leading organizations in hackathon planning and facilitation. While there are lots of subjects where I’m willing to give people space to have differing opinions to my own, this particular field is one where I’m a bit of a fundamentalist. I believe pretty strongly that there is a right and a wrong way to run hackathons, and way too many hackathons out there are “wrong”. So, let there be no question in the matter, I am biased and these are my biases:

  1. Hackathons should not exist to allow for profit companies to use free labor to create tools that make them more money. A hackathon is not an excuse to get a weekend worth of slave labor in exchange for pizza and Red Bull.
  2. Hackathons should be cooperative, not competitive, and large monetary prizes at hackathons damage the potential of the event rather than enhance it.
  3. Hackathons should be about moving projects forward as well as about creating new prototypes.
  4. Hackathons should educate and inspire.
  5. Hackathons should not require you to damage your body for a weekend of comraderie.
  6. Everyone who wants to participate in a hackathon should feel safe in the event space.

Taking those biases into consideration, let’s look at Alex’s criticisms, and let me explain why a good hackathon shouldn’t have that problem.

Hackathons are too much commitment
Just because the suffix “-athon” is there does not mean that the experience has to be as punishing as a marathon. There are walkathons, telethons, jump-rope-athons… all of these are charity events with varied commitment levels that allow you to do something that you will hopefully enjoy while raising money and/or awareness for some charitable cause. A good hackathon does the same thing.

A good hackathon gives you the opportunity to spend all or part of your weekend developing something for a civic or charitable cause of your choice. For those who are not usually directly affected by that charitable cause, it should raise awareness and deepen understanding of the situation. For those whose lives are bound up in the charitable cause in some way, the event should be empowering, giving participants a way to help themselves with tools and support that may not be available in normal day-to-day life.

They exclude people with lives and responsibilities
OK. I’ll give you this one, at least to some extent. Just like a walkathon, there are some people who simply won’t be able to schedule time away from other responsibilities — including family and work — or who have so many responsibilities that they really need that weekend time for self care and relaxation. I can’t disagree with you on that point.

However, I can say that I have brought children to hackathons before, and I have seen other parents do so as well. In 2014, my friend Deirdre Rogers, a professor of Sociology at Greensboro College, brought her twin 5 year old boys to the Partnership for a Healthier America hackathon that was facilitated by Geeks Without Bounds in Washington, DC. She participated as a mentor and subject matter expert across several different projects and her boys each contributed art, user experience testing, and advice about what kids care about when it comes to food choices.

Yes, they got bored sometimes. My laptop has a “sticker” on it that one of the boys made for me when he was just done with the hackathon projects. The boys also had their own tablets there so they could play games while mom was busy. Finally, they didn’t try to stay for the entire weekend. They came and participated on and off during the course of the weekend, took off to do other things when they needed to, and came back to see the final presentations and receive their rewards for being awesome at the end.

My point is, it can be done, and more hackathon organizers need to learn how to integrate families into the weekend.

They are unhealthy
They don’t have to be. At the H4D2 hackathons in Birmingham, England our food sponsor insists that the meals be vegetarian with vegan options. At the PHA hackathon we had healthy food and exercise breaks. While we like to have the space available to participants overnight during hackathons, the vast majority of people leave on Saturday evening and come back in time for breakfast on Sunday morning.

Another thing that can make a hackathon healthier is to get up from your chair at some point during each day and make the rounds to see what other groups are working on. Chances are, you have something to contribute to more than one project in the room. Maybe its just an idea or a question that leads them to a new idea. Maybe its a quick bug fix for someone who has read a screen full of code 12 times already and missed that extra semicolon in the wrong place.

They are competitive
NO!!! That is because you have been to the EEVIL kind of hackathon that we shall not speak of. All the curses of The Book of Mozilla shall be heaped upon the heads of their organizers and sponsors, and their tags shall BLINK until the end of days!!!

(I told you I was a fundamentalist. You didn’t believe me, did you?)

Remember what I wrote up there in the biases section? Well, I stand by my bias. It is good and right and true. So let me repeat it again.

Hackathons should not be competitive.

What is it that you want to accomplish here, anyway? If you want to build a better world, you are going to have to share ideas and skills to get it done. When you divide people into teams and tell them that there is a scarcity of rewards for their effort, you will get get nastiness. I’m not saying that we live in a utopian post-scarcity world. What I am saying is that there is no point in creating false scarcity. It just doesn’t provide the best results. Period.

Our hackathons do have judging, though. Sometimes we’ll decide in advance what the judging categories are, based on the goals of the event. Other times, we’ll give the judges some guidelines to help them decide what kind of awards should be given at the end of the weekend. Awards might be for “Most progress over the weekend” or “Individual who benefited the most projects” or “bleary eyed webmonkey”. Sometimes we give certificates. Whenever possible we make sure that every participant walks away with something as a way to thank them for their work. Sometimes those gifts are of differing value, but the difference is never very large and the basis of the larger rewards isn’t “Who made the VCs in the room dream of even bigger bank accounts.”

You can’t work on existing projects
Again with those EEVIL, bad hackathons. Let me tell you how it should be done, and how it is at Geeks Without Bounds and Random Hacks of Kindness hackathons…

Taking a project from one hackathon to the next is a great way to build a project and snowball your project team. At each event you get a little bit more accomplished and quite often a new volunteer will join your team for the long haul after having a blast with you over the weekend. This is how to build software (or hardware!) AND community.

If you want to take an existing project to a hackathon, you should make sure to define the challenge or challenges that you want to attack during that event. Just saying, “We want to build more stuff” isn’t good enough. That doesn’t help you recruit the right people to your team and it doesn’t help judges understand what it is you’ve accomplished over the weekend.

They’re just toys. And then they are gone.
A good hackathon is about solving challenges. A great hackathon ends with a signpost that points toward a path to sustainability. “Now that you’ve done these wonderful things, here’s where to go from here!”

One path to sustainability is the Geeks Without Bounds Accelerator Program. We have a six month program that takes promising open source humanitarian projects from early prototype toward sustainability. This year we are also launching Accelerator Weekends that allow teams to explore what sustainability means for their project in a weekend workshop setting.

There are a lot of different ways to turn a weekend project into something that will bring benefit to the world after that initial weekend. When it comes to civic or humanitarian open source projects, the way to do that may not be through a for profit startup company. Some projects really need to become nonprofits. Some can find a home inside an existing organization. Others can exist as loosely organized community with no legal container at all. Once you figure out which path is best for your project, we can help you figure out how to build your team, where money will come from (if you need it), and how this project can either live side-by-side with your ordinary life or become your new job. It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, which is why it takes six months to really get you solidly on the road.

So what are hackathons good for?
Hackathons are great for giving people a chance to use their skills on some really meaningful work over a weekend. They are good for informing people about civic and humanitarian challenges that they may know nothing about. They are an opportunity to be exposed to new APIs, data sources, or programs that you may not get to use in your normal workaday life. They are a place to sit with subject matter experts, end users, designers, writers and coders to learn from each other and create something you can be proud of.

Hackathons are good for sparking a new passion in your life and for sharing that spark with other people.

A final word
Alex says they’d rather have an opportunity to work on ongoing projects on their own terms. Maybe they want to work in the evenings or just for a few hours here and there on successive weekends without all the hype and the other people in the room and the caffeine and the pizza. Well, Alex, and everyone else, I have something for you!

At Geeks Without Bounds we have quite a few projects that have come through our accelerator program already, and more are on their way. For each of those projects we are gathering help requests — volunteer opportunities for people with a range of skills. Some of these requests come in the form of challenge briefs similar to what might be presented at a hackathon. Others are calls for people with a certain skill set to work on a list of new features or enhancements. Most of these projects have team email lists you can join, and some of them will even invite you to be a part of the mentorship calls if you want to volunteer a few hours a month for the long term.

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook to find out when we post new volunteer requests.

And Happy Hacking!