January 25, 2013

The Evolution of the Hackathon


Here at Mashery, we’ve seen firsthand the proliferation of hackathons around the world.  There is no question to the tremendous value it presents to the API space for enterprise, startups, and the developer community.  The transition of an idea into an app can be a difficult process, especially when solving a complex problem. Hackers deserve tremendous credit for meeting this challenge and continuing to redefine how digital innovation will change the industry.

A quick glance at Hacker League will show you there are a wide variety of hacking events like music, fashion, open data, and academia. In a given weekend, there can be 6 to 8 events going on simultaneously in New York, all within a square mile of each other.

With more exposure to different industries and the continued diversification of attendees, it is clear that hackathons have evolved.

I recently attended Brooklyn Venture Community’s meetup, “Invasion of the Hackathons: Geek-Event Gone Mainstream.” According to organizer, Charlie Oliver, there were close to 300 RSVPs, and dozens on the waiting list. 

The informal format allowed the audience to easily have a conversation with the panel.   It was quite an eclectic mix of panelists: hackers, PR veterans, professors, and hackathon founders/organizers.  A fluid dialog erupted about what’s next for hackathons.  Here are my takeaways from the event:

1)   Intellectual Property: As more corporations get involved, so do their legal teams.  There is a delicate balance allowing hackers to have ownership of their ideas, but also to protect a brand’s image.  For example, AT&T held a hack day with lengthy terms, which resulted in detracting attendees.  Lesson learned: Hackers need full control, and a creative license.

2)   Hackathons are Everywhere: Many hackers expressed their concern of having too many events diluting the fabric of what makes them great. It was suggested that organizers join up with the existing momentum of an established group, and bring more prominence to a singular event.

3)   Why call them Hackathons?: There was a great dialogue on some alternative views discussing potential fragmentation of events. In some cases Idea-athons, Startup Pitch Showdowns, and Demo Days offer tremendous value.  However, the largest motivator for participants is to see something made.  Hackathons are about the possibility to be part of something game-changing and you are awarded for your creativity.  As long as future events follow this style, it will drive interest from the community.

4)   Prizes and Motivators: Winning first place doesn’t always result in a monetary prize, like at TechCrunch Disrupt.  Being a hackathon sponsor is a terrific way for companies to showcase their API in the hackathon space.  They are also great places for hackers to network.

At the close of the event someone said, “Ideas are worthless until they actually happen.”  I believe the Hackathon community understands this best. 

As technology improves, the world presents us with even more complex problems to solve. We must adopt the hacker mentality and realize the future we want – for business, for ideas, and for our lives.