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.