Hackathons are awesome! They’re great fun, welcome lots of amazing people through their doors and are a hub of creativity and ingenuity. That said, the word is overused and I can’t help but rant slightly on the matter. The word 'hackathon' has been popularised and to quote one organiser 'its sexy'. To me, most hackathons aren't hackathons, but fall into a few broad categories.
Idea-athons are all about solving problems with the aim to pitch a working solution or ‘idea’. With many similarities to a startup-a-thon (more to come there) they’re not exclusively about software development and in fact are often better targeted to address process or procedure. I’d not be surprised if there was no technology or code involved (to be fair though I'm excluding excel formula’s). Your end objective is a credible working solution to a problem. I like to think of them as more of a brainstorm not quite a hackathon.
Really this is an idea-a-thon combined with business validation and commercialisation. Often run in an incubator or startup environment its just about not just solving problems, but also validating the market assumptions and building a financial model around an idea or solution. They’re often a bit more technical, but there’s still no expectation that software engineering and general tech knowledge should play to the core of the team’s final product; and often there is (still) not a line of code written. The final outcome is usually a business plan, or a demonstration of a minimal lovable product (I don’t like MVP as a term - I might blog on that another time).
Take FashHack or HackFood as examples. Both fantastic events with a multitude of participants building different things - but barely a line of code needed to be written in most teams and both were very heavily focused about idea validation and producing a business strategy. Teams that actually built software only did so to demonstrate ideas while other teams produced sketches instead.
These types of events are growing in popularity, and increasingly becoming startup-menthor-a-thons with more focus on the lean canvas and business validation. Heavy on the mentoring and sadly quite light on the actual hacking.
Corporate hack days
With the popularisation of ‘hackthons’ larger corporations are doing enterprise versions with the intent of fostering a culture of innovation. At NewsCorp we had various ‘foundry’ events (video, data etc.) and they’re a great opportunity to bring together different analytical brains across a company to solve problems. My problem however with this is that its too curated, too managed and too focused on the 'business' rather than the technology or innovation. Most projects or ideas need to be pre-authorised with a line manager thus restricting true creativity and innovation.
I've seen quite a few hack days used to work on 'business as usual' or strategy development rather than true innovation and thought leadership. Corporate innovation is crucial, and I certainly see value in finding new revenue streams - but to call it a hackthon isn’t quite right in my books.
So I digress, now to get off my soap box. What is a hackathon to me?
I won’t break the first rule of hacker club and talk about hacker club (well not in depth anyway). Needless to say you can find details on not-so-obscure corners of the internet like this conveniently located wikipedia page. It's ultimately a desire to explore, exploit or overcome technical limitations or challenges, often making something function in a new and unexpected way. It’s worth emphasising that this isn’t malicious - merely an exploration and technical challenge; what quirky things can you make something do?
A real hackathon
A real hackathon is about letting your imagination run wild, your brain roam free and create something truly unique. It’s not just about solving problems but to (in the mind of a hacker) find new ways to use and combine technical systems. It’s all about building ‘stuff’ but its not specific about what that ‘stuff’ is.
Take GovHack or Apps4NSW as examples. The objective might be to use various data sets but there’s no requirement on how or what to build or how far the idea had to be fleshed out. Sure there’s incentives to use certain data sets (and hey, who doesn’t want to win $4000 for the Best Disaster Mitigation hack) but there’s no core requirement, business venture or outcome expected of participants. It’s just pure ‘hacking’ on an idea or a topic.
Events like BattleHack and GovHack are an excellent example of hackathons that are curated with a broad focus and organised for participants to truly explore their curiosity.
Hackathons have been and will always (in my mind) be about the technical side of overcoming challenges, about finding new ways to use things and about building new things.
The modern variation is fun and certainly has its place but it’s not quite a ‘hackathon' to me.