Hackathons - are they useful?
September 14, 2011
If you’ve never participated in a hackathon (hack night, code jam, etc) then it might be difficult to understand the point. Typically a hackathon is when two or more programmers get together to work on something interesting. For most hackathons there is no more than a very high-level goal (build something useful for example) and a pre-determined period of time (might be an all-nighter, might be a weekend event, might be a week long thing) to do it in.
Hackathons can be something two friends do on a weekend in a garage, a fun event that a company throws together for its employees, or a public event that spans a weekend and is open to hundreds of devs.
##Who goes to hackathons?
In my opinion, the type of people that go to hackathons have a passion for programming, or design, and have a passion for building things. A lot of them have an entrepreneurial passion and love the opportunity to build something with friends that might go to market some day.
At a hackathon, you wont find the type of programmer that works a 9 to 5 for a paycheck.
##Sounds like fun and games…
I can see that but don’t mistake the pizza, wings, beer, and video games as a sign of a bunch of idiots screwing around. This is called programmer food and its required to keep energy levels high. No really.
The movie “The Social Network” doesn’t do hackathons justice. Watching the movie, you can’t really feel the energy. You don’t get a feel for how much work actually gets done. You don’t get to see a large paycheek directly related to your hack efforts.
##So is it useful?
For who? Programmers? Businesses? - I’ve participated in a few hackathons. Mostly just two-man code jams but I’ve also been a part of a two-week hackathon in a hotel room with three other engineers.
About three years ago, myself and three other engineers went on a sprint to build an enterprise application for a loan servicing company in Scottsdale, AZ. The goal was simple:
Build the best collections software in the world
So we spent three months building it. Towards the end of the sprint, we found that there were many distractions that were keeping us from maximizing our productivity and launching the new product on time. Distractions such as meetings, email, people walking into your cubicle all day, and various other things you find in a corporate environment.
We decided that we needed to escape the distractions so we moved to a hotel room a couple of blocks down the street and finished our sprint there.
This ended up being a two week hackathon where the four of us coded for hours (well more than 8) each day. The energy was high, the environment was fantastic (room over looking a pool), and we had laser beam vision of our goal.
The result was that we launched a polished product that was ready to use right out of the gate. We ended up winning an industry award for the software and I attribute that award to the hotel hackathon effort.
##Hackathons aren’t just for college kids
Barry and I recently won a Twilio contest for powering up sales with Twilio Client. We are both married with kids (I have three, and he has two). While we can’t do nightly hackathons, we can on occasion pull all-nighters at each others house. We have very understanding wives.
We sought out to integrate the Twilio Client into the SideBox application. We knew it would be huge for SideBox customers and it would be a big deal for us if we won. By the time we found out about the contest, we had about a week to get it done.
We had two hack nights. The first was to polish the Twilio Client experience (implementing it was simple), and the second was to produce the video announcing the feature.
##Try before you buy
Speaking from a business owner perspective, hackathons might not make sense at the surface. Especially in the corporate world where people are afraid to introduce anything and where people live in fear of others perceptions (just my opinion here).
Give it a try, you won’t be disappointed. Work in the corporate world? Who cares? What corporation would not want their programmers to be highly motivated to build a product for them? Afraid of bringing pizza and beer into the work place? Who cares? This about empowering your brightest minds to work their asses off for you (likely not being paid for the extra time/work). This motivates people. You want your programmers working together, after hours, learning new things and building product. You just might be blown away at the result of even one single hack night.
So hack away!
P.S. I’ll be at the Twilio Hackathon in San Francisco on September 21st. See you there!