Hackathons: they’re fun, but they need to change

I’m very lucky to have a (current) winning streak when it comes to Hackathons. At Intertech LGBT’s hackathon in 2014, we were joint winners of the first prize and a couple of weeks ago, we grabbed the 2nd prize at the wonderful Hack Cancer event. These were both good fun and worthwhile. Normally to do things that make a difference in the world, you need money – but the ability to code and the ubiquity of Internet-enabled mobile devices is changing that, even in developing countries.

That being said, Hackathons in the typical format they’re currently offered are inaccessible to some. Normally, organisers get the fundamentals right – we code for free, so we’re well fed, kept warm, and given a reasonable environment to get on with coding. However, I realised at the Facebook Hackathon that I’m simply not cut out for coding for 24 hours straight and at the Hack Cancer Hackathon, it became impossible due to my medication so I did manage to get some sleep. My medication is mild, but 24-hour Hackathons make the assumption that everybody there is able to keep going for a minimum of a day straight. Which leads me on to my singular proposal…

Make Hackathons a weekend event. 10am-6pm Saturday and 10am-6pm Sunday.

In reality, Hackathons are already a weekend event. Speak to anybody who did the full 24-hours non-stop and they’ll tell you they got home and went straight to sleep.

Another aspect to this is the Hackathon sponsorship. Companies paying for the Hackathon to take place often send representatives to try and promote the company and/or to try and recruit new developers. I have experienced at Hackathons these representatives doing the rounds, chatting to all of us to find out what we do and whether we’d be interested in applying. However, we were busy coding to get an MVP complete before the 24-hour deadline – we had no interest in talking to those representatives and I feel that those representatives probably didn’t get their money’s worth. Insisting that coding stops on the Saturday means attendees can go to a company-sponsored food/drink event, where they a) can socialise and network with each other and b) they can be wined and dined by recruiters who have their full and undivided attention.

When I floated this, one very valid response is to ask about those who sneakily code outside of the permitted times? Well, Hackathons normally rely on trust and integrity in pretty much every way – we aren’t checked for plagiarism, there’s no real way to check if we’d done some of the work before the day and we are not really monitored in any particular way except for the final presentation. If people want to break the rules, they can already do so.

There is also a very valid argument to allow and encourage remote workers to join in when it comes to Hackathons. This gives people the opportunity to pick the environment in which they work. I’ve never been part of the Shoreditch Clique and when I’m trying to code, I get agitated when people are messing around with skateboards or making vast amounts of noise – it’s not conducive to a productive engineering environment. I get far more work done from the comfort of my own living room than I do in a hall with 60 other people. From a more important perspective, some devs would love to take part, but can’t afford the train ticket if they live a considerable distance; or perhaps they have a disability that inhibits them from attending in person. Remote working creates accessibility.

I do not know one developer who produces their best code after 16 hours of straight non-stop coding and I heavily suspect that the graveyard shift of Hackathons are horrifically unproductive. End it, allow developers to be much more productive, to socialise and network and of course, ensure that your sponsors get as much out of them as they can.

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