What Good Is a Hackathon


All good things invariably gets institutionalized and corrupted. Hackathons are no exception.

People who haven’t participated in hackathons talk about them as hotbeds of innovation, as the kinds of places where great thinkers come together and dream up exciting new ideas. Hackers don’t see it that way. They share an open secret: Nothing useful is ever created at a hackathon. There’s even a term for the useless software that people make: vaporware. The idea is that it’s created, and then it evaporates because nobody works on the project after the hackathon (despite everyone’s best intentions).

In it's purest form, hackathons are jamming sessions of this century.

In reality, a hackathon is a sporting and social event. It’s like a regatta for nerds. Hackathons also serve as outrageously complex recruiting events. Venture capitalists and head-hunters for top tech firms haunt hackathons in order to spot and poach talent. On the surface, however, nobody talks about hackathon software as ephemeral. People pretend that they are really starting businesses, that they are creating software that will have an impact, that they are doing something that has the potential to change lives. The fantasy of creating the next Google is seductive—so seductive that people sign up to spend days with strangers, forgoing sleep, in order to play at being tech entrepreneurs.

But when money gets into the system, posers follow.

“We’ve gone easy on you so far. But the qualifiers are tomorrow, and the judges are not going to be easy on you. They are all entrepreneurs, investors, people who have ridden the bus before. They know how hard it is. You’re going to have to show them that your idea has traction. They want to see users, revenue, a product that is going to make a billion dollars.” He was getting worked up. His version of coaching involved berating us, as if it weren’t already difficult enough being on a crowded bus where the wifi only worked sometimes and the broken electrical system meant sharing three plugs among 50+ devices.