Hackathons aren’t what they used to be

My first and last college hackathon

21 Sep 2015

“Selling Out and the Death of Hacker Culture” is a great article by Rodney Folz. He does an incredible job of capturing how hackathons have changed — it made me consider my own experience with hackathons.

I remember being in high school, and seeing photos like this one come out of college hackathons. I’d hear about groups of students who booked rooms for a day to work on their nerdy projects with nerdy friends — it seemed like such an awesome idea! And it was.

PennApps attendees sitting at a long, crowded table in a hallway

“4 years ago today I went to my first hackathon. PennApps 2011, when all the hacking happened in a single hallway.”
Photo by Tess Rinearson (@_tessr).

So, in my first semester of college, I made sure to attend HackMIT 2013 — my first “real” hackathon. It was nothing like the small Columbia-only hackathons, or our weekly Cookies and Code event. It wasn’t about learning or having a good time: it was about winning. I sat within earshot of several teams that ended up winning prizes. All but one had been working on their projects beforehand.

In one instance, I watched a group of experts turn away an Angular.js beginner trying to get his questions answered. They told him to ask an engineer from a sponsor table instead.

Anything to get an edge.

And I’ll never forget the recruiter who came up to me during show-and-tell judging. When I explained that my project was simple because I was learning JavaScript and the DOM coming from a robotics background, she thought it was a weird decision. Why not work on a hardware hack instead? Or something else that you’re already good at, to make sure things go smoothly. Heaven forbid someone actually tries something new at a hackathon. It’s too big of a risk.

I had a good time and made quite a few new friends. Still, on the bus ride back to New York, something bothered me. And I couldn’t quite put my finger on the cause until much later.

Initially, I blamed HackMIT’s scale. But actually, the number of attendees had nothing to do with it — it’s all about the incentive structure. The prizes — a bit of cash and a lot of publicity — rewarded cutthroat behavior. And some of those prizes were decided by company representatives, who wanted to hire people based on what they already knew how to do.

The hackathons I’d read about in 2010 are no more. In their place, we got something that goes by the same name, but manages to be the exact opposite. “Hackathon” in 2010 == “Unhackathon” in 2015.

To be clear, this isn’t meant as an indictment of HackMIT 2013. Reading Folz’s article made me realize that the organizers actually did a great job of reconciling the “need” to be big and flashy with not being tacky: no required talks, no humongous cash prizes, no phonebooths full of money.

Which means that hackathons of today must be even more toxic.