Saving the hackathon

It’s fashionable to be cynical towards hackathons. There’s too many of them. They exploit developers. They rarely have useful products come out of them.

Even if you’re not a cynic, at some point you have to wonder—why do the overwhelming majority of hackathon projects die succinctly and unquestionably following the event? It’s often a foregone conclusion for the hacker—go to the event, try to win the prize, and then go back to your job the next day.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Most of the time people go for fun. It’s a good learning exercise. As a first timer, the sheer novelty of it all gives you enough energy to power through an entire weekend.

But if hackathons continue to permeate at the rate at which they have, when organizers shout “so whose first hackathon is this!?” to rouse excitement, they will be answered with fewer chants and cheers. People will start to wonder where all this energy and money is going if not for shipping new products that are actually used. Eventually, the novelty is going to wear off, excitement levels are going to fade and cynicism is going to start to win over.

Can hackathons be saved from that fate? More importantly, are hackathons worth saving if they are of questionable sustained usefulness?

I entered the elevator with a woman on the way up to The Fashion Hackathon by Decoded Fashion at Alley NYC. I didn’t think she was a hacker, a suspicion confirmed when she initiated elevator conversation. “So, what do you think of the hackathon?”

“Oh. Umm…looks like a good attendance.” I’m not good at this. “You?”

“I feel like these hackers just don’t get fashion.” I prepared myself for commentary on bad haircuts and oversized t-shirts.

She continued. “The hackers here just want to create their clever, funny, sexy apps. They don’t get it. They don’t get ecommerce. There’s logistics. There’s problems, inefficiencies. But they’re boring problems and all the hackers want to do is build their fun apps.”

I nodded along. “Yeah, I don’t know. I think these things are mostly about having fun and learning technology.” I was pretty content with that response, not really believing it could be any other way. I expected the event would proceed as the woman had observed.

The Fashion Hackathon organizers put together a panel of leaders in the fashion industry to talk about how tech is impacting it. Their conversation started off broad. They talked about how Pinterest gave them the best conversion rates, and how tech was too impersonal and didn’t have a “human touch”, and that our apps should emit a humanness and connectedness and give you the feeling and confidence that good fashion should. Great sound bites, but I didn’t feel inspired.

But then the panel moderator focused the discussion. “This all seems a little macro,” she said. “Let’s get some real problems that those of you working in fashion have. I mean, if I get one more pitch for a photo sharing app, I think I’m going to puke. These hackers have 24 hours to build something actually useful—what tidbits can you give them that they can use to solve some problems?”

What’s interesting is that none of the panelists were prepared for this question. Even the most articulate panelist, when asked to start first went on a 30 second soliloquy about how hard these questions were. How could they be able to talk about fashion and how it relates to tech in broad strokes, but be unable to articulate specific day-to-day problems?

This gets to the crux of the problem with hackathons—there is a disconnect between the people with real-world problems and the people who can build solutions. The industry experts don’t know how to identify and articulate their problems and the hackers don’t bother or don’t know how to extract them. Collectively, we must improve on this if we A) want hackathons to continue to thrive and B) want them to actually be useful.

After some hesitation Rachel Roy, one of the designers, spoke up. “People seem to think most of our problems are design or marketing related. They’re not. They’re logistical. When I cut a dress, I know how it should look, how it should feel. But then I send it to a manufacturer overseas, I don’t know how to communicate that to them. It doesn’t translate right, and it comes out wrong. I need to actually see it and tell them if it’s correct. Because when it’s not, we waste thousands of dollars shipping items back and forth, and waste weeks doing the whole process again when that dress should have already been in stores.”

This is an actual problem, and from the outside-in, there’s no way a hacker could see that. And finally, at least in my own mind, ideas started flickering on how we could use software to improve that process.

And apparently there wasn’t a shortage of these problems, they just took a while to come out. One of the other panelists told a story about how the lack of structured purchasing data hurt his ability to make product and manufacturing decisions, but an instance when he did have data, he was able to influence a major retail buyer to carry one of his products which otherwise would have been tossed out. I looked around and noticed three people around me had legal pads and were jotting down notes.

Absent those kind of insights, most of us would probably be off building another fun and quirky way to share our photos. But with them, there is hope that we can create during these tireless 24 hour sprints something that goes beyond satisfying our own technical itch.

It’s easy for the cynic to view hackathons as an exploitation—the big corporation taking advantage of the cheap talent and creativity of the lone developer. “Developers are so creative! Let’s throw a hackathon and see what they come up with! Pizza!” For some companies, this is what sponsoring a hackathon looks like:

1) Find a hackathon focused around your product or industry
2) Invite young creative developers and tell them to make stuff
3) Incentivize them with a cheap prize
4) ???
5) Profit

In some regards, the cynic is correct. That does look like exploitation. But the reason it’s exploitation is because the developer’s chance of actual sustained success is low, with little to no help from the other side. Eventually these companies will catch on—they’re not getting the revolutionary new idea that they had hoped for. They see the same recycled ideas event after event. They will smile to the developer and say, cya next time! But eventually the novelty will wear off.

In order for it be ethical, sustained, and useful, it needs to be a collaboration. Industry insiders can’t just come to events and say, “Here’s our theme! LOL! Go make stuff!” What results is an assortment of sweeping ideas that are too ambitious in scope, with a misunderstanding of the industry, clearly produced by an outsider.

And that’s too bad, because there’s such an opportunity there. How many entrepreneurs would beg to have free form access to the insiders that developers do at hackathons? You have 24 hours to pick their brains, extract their problems, and work intimately with them to propose solutions.

This is what I began to see at The Fashion Hackathon. After the panel, I noticed a shift in strategy amongst the teams. Ideas felt more refined, narrower in scope. They were less about creating another recommendation engine for clothing, and more about managing workflows to make a specific process more efficient. Instead of darting off into teams right away, they probed the panelists and mentors to further flesh out their problems.

The Fashion Hackathon was the closest thing I’ve seen to a purpose driven hackathon. And by that I don’t mean a hackathon with a theme, or a hackathon where 60 people pitch ideas on how they need to start a company so that they can have an app that helps them efficiently organize a night at the bar with their friends. I mean a hackathon where industry experts collaborate with hackers to solve real, accessible problems.

That’s when hackathons are at their best, but we don’t do it enough. We get caught up in the big, broad, and vague, and ignore the detail, nuance, and concrete. It’s easier and more exciting to think about industries in the former sense.

There are hackers that want to discover real problems, even if they’re boring. We’re a talented and creative bunch, but without constraints, our own enthusiasm and naivety can propel us to reach beyond our grasp. If we set realistic expectations, encourage curiosity, and put hackers in a position to extract concrete insights from industry experts, hackathons can potentially be a brilliant format for solving real-world problems.

  • Captain Lyre Calliope

    I’ve noticed that purpose-driven hackathons like CrisisCamp tend to work best when there’s an R&D cycle built into it from the beginning. I’m aiming to discover what this means in terms of best practices and embedding these lessons into future versions of this ‘Hack Weekends Guide’:

    I’d love to work with anyone who wants to share their experience and/or experiment with new hackathon formats to figure this stuff out. I think hacking the culture of hackathons is itself going to take some R&D.

    • Sara Farmer

      I’m one of the people who created that humanitarian hackathon format – I’d love to share my experiences, notes, thoughts and lists of people who know way more than I do about it with you if you want them!

      • Captain Lyre Calliope

        That would be amazing! Shoot me an email plz!

      • dominik

        Hey Sara, I m just organizing my first serial hack+make jam in sweden, and came across this. I will be putting together the first round agenda later this week, and would love if you could take a look at it perhaps. And i have been looking to put together some advisors because i really need input being a bit far out from the center of the universe these day

    • dominik

      Thanks for sharing this

  • David Fontenot

    I think the biggest thing here is that most of the value of a Hackathon is derived from the process, not the hacks…..I think that’s what people don’t get about them.

    • Captain Lyre Calliope

      Totally. Their value really comes from the learning that happens and the connections that are built.. mentally, socially, and sometimes even a-href-ally.

      • David Fontenot

        I’m just surprised at how misguided the writer is to think that the real value of the hackathon comes from the hacks. Does college have questionable sustained usefulness bc not everyone comes out having already solved a real problem or having built a real startup?

        Hackathons are only about solving day-to-day problems so much as those problems propel you to learn more as you work on them. If you learn more building a photo-sharing app for the first time, then so be it. I’ve learned way more spending a few weekends at hackathons than entire semesters of CS, and it’s even made most of the CS courses I take significantly less difficult. If that’s not a shitton of value being created, then I don’t know what is.

        It’s insane how there’s such a disconnect in the tech community between us needing more people to become better and better developers and having to always focus on building something that actually solves a “real problem” or can be monetized. One of the biggest real problems that I see is that not enough people love building stuff. Hackathons make more people love building stuff. How can you argue with that?

  • yc

    Still waiting for _the_ Tokbox hackathon

  • zbowling

    Well hello there. I think we have met.

  • Phil Leggetter

    I think it’s important to get the balance right. Having hackathons that achieve what you’ve written about sounds like something that could definitely improve a lot of events. But I think it’s also worth having some events that are completely open and encourage crazy inventive ideas. These hacks may not initially have a real use case. But unexpected use cases can be found for innovative uses of technology.

    So, let’s just get the balance right.

    • Jon Mumm

      Hey Phil,

      You’re right, and it’s mostly about expectation setting. There’s certainly a place for events where there are no constraints and expectations are clear—Music Hack Day is a beautiful example of this.


  • Pingback: Saving the Hackathon | My Daily Feeds

  • Dave Carroll

    Hey Jon, I like your thoughts. We have hackathons and mini-hacks, both ultimately to educate on our platform. I’ve found the use case constrained or focused hackathons can be very useful to both the host as well as the participant. What makes this useful is that there are clear goals as to the kind of app to hack, but not how to get to the end product. The real creativity and innovation come through in the solution, not the definition of the problem, as you alluded to above.

    Mini-hacks are even more constrained in that there is a task to be accomplished that is well defined, targeted at the newbie on the tech and may take as little as 15 minutes to as much as an hour. We then string these together in a series of mini-hacks. Do all the hacks, you win a prize. The goal here is to network and collaborate on learning while actually doing.

    There definitely needs to be some creative thinking about hackathons and realistic goal setting by the organizers and for the hackers.

  • Michelle Lee

    Kudos to that panel moderator for getting real. The hackathon world needs more like this.

  • Bob Poekert

    You can’t reasonably expect a “revolutionary new idea” in a weekend. If that’s what you want, you have to actually, you know, hire some developers. And pay them at market rates. If you can’t afford to, ask yourself why. You might find some insight in the answer.

    • richard arnott

      I don’t agree. I have nothing but admiration for developers, but they think differently to design thinkers. The point about design with a social purpose, as participatory innovation platforms like @g00dfornothing is that often the ‘thinker’ role is to reframe the client’s brief. Okay, @g00dfornothing is a platform which has a explicit principle, one is ‘doing not talking’, but creative strategic thinking is about doing the right thing, not just doing the thing right. I believe the value in a strategic designers way of thinking is ‘re-framing’ the problem statement.

      See: “Reframing design thinking with @IITDesign’s Patrick Whitney: #stratcon #business #design” and in terms of impact… okay, you can help a client build a site from scratch in a w/e, and lots of other types of implementation good designers and coders and web developers know how to do quickly, but in the two UK projects in which I have been involved so far, I have helped to influence the client to re-frame the problem/brief and see their ‘problem statement’ a little differently, through a designers lens.

      In the most recent of the two, just last w/e, I participated on #goodforfood and helped an entrepreneur @ForgottenF00ds and @FareshareSW re-frame their brief and agreed this with them before designing or implementing anything more tangible. If @FareshareSW current 1% share of the 3m tonnes of UK food waste increases to 5% (from their Food Partners) and goes to feed more people that are most in need, then our team’s re-framing will have had real social impact 🙂

  • Pingback: Startup Life and Purposeful Hackdays | Vicky Poppins' Bag

  • Pingback: Saving the hackathon | Tokbox Blog | OKFNbe |

  • Lucy Wills

    Yup. this totally clicked with me. Hackathons are about open innovation, and getting stuff done. That means listening to what people what, and if they can’t articulate it, helping them to do so, and making sure the project actually delivers. All hail that chair for steering it to a place where a little market insight triggers some real challenges.Here in the UK hackathons are primarily focussed on social innovation, and helping not for profits or campaign groups. They are usually very clear on what they need, but have very little idea how to get there, so it’s hugely satisfying to be able to do stuff to help. If it’s becoming more about solving problems for enterprise, then yes, people are gaining valuable hands on experience, esp. of process / agile on steroids but should they be getting more in return?? Should we be helping the benficiaries integrate their inovations, and more importanlty build in some helpingpeople assimilate what they learn on hackathons back into their working lives? After a weekend of blazing work at @g00dfornothing, for me, going back to the day job felt stiflingly slow, and fustrating. Think of it as an outreach program. People, you’re on to something, please keep in touch – @re_present

  • Sequoia M.

    Great article! Seems like a key takeaway is that involvement from non-hacker domain experts is just as important as involvement from hackers.

    One quibble: ‘I didn’t think she was a hacker, a suspicion confirmed when she initiated elevator conversation. “So, what do you think of the hackathon?”’ Not sure if you’re suggesting she didn’t “look like a hacker” because she’s a woman or because she was able to initiate a conversation, but neither prejudice is useful. We’re not all male, guileless neckbeards. 😉

  • Pingback: Hacking the Hackathon | Code for America

  • Pingback: Hacking the Hackathon « Blue Ridge Foundation

  • Richard Murby

    (Sorry to be discovering this blog late) I’ve organized a lot of Hackathons (mostly in the social space – RHoK). The position I’ve come to take is that the output of the events is often directly related to up-front work you put it – with one important disclaimer – It’s ok to just have fun. Let me expand on that slightly…

    If you are looking to have genuine impact on a problem ro sector then you need to invest a good deal of time understand what are the key areas to ask technologists to help you with. My friend (and hackathon designer) Michael Brennan always says that while technology can’t solve all the problems in a sector – there are problems where technology can help. From the first time I heard this I really liked it, as it speaks to both the possibility of technology and sets some realistic goals. Therefore, you need to invest the time ahead of the hackathon finding the problems for people to work on. It’s basically shortening the process described above.

    On the other hand at every hackathon you always get people who come just wanting to have fun, meet new people and learn new stuff. I think we need to make sure there is always space for that at these events.