Fourteen things I learnt doing 14 Hackathons in 2014


Hackathons are a true reflection of human nature: working in teams and competing to deliver something meaningful in a stipulated period of time. They are a gathering of developers, designers and ideation folks working towards a common goal to build something innovative, most of them run for 24-36 hours. Some of the hackathons are theme based like tech for good, urban planning or music, while others are very broad. Hackathon, quite simply put, is a portmanteau of two words: “hack” and “marathon”.

“Hack” in this context, means to do something quickly or find a shorter and simpler way to solve a problem, while a marathon means a long non-stop run. So a hackathon is an event where hackers and developers work together to build something in a fast manner in a fixed time. The developers use a lot of open source tools to ship products faster. We at Venturesity offer hackathons as a recruiting and innovation platform. We have done 14 hackathons in last 1 year and here are some things that we have learnt:1. Competitive Spirit: Hackathons tickle the very basic nature of humans: the competitive spirit. A room full of 100s of hackers with their machines, fuelled by taurine based beverages is a perfect setting for a competitive environment.

2. Collaboration: Many hackathons require collaboration: people are required to work together in small teams to finish the project. So, hackathons embody the very spirit of teamwork: another component of basic human nature.

3. Talent can come from anywhere: Anton Ego, the famous food critic from the movie Ratatouille, says “Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist *can* come from *anywhere*”. This is especially true in the context of hackathons. These gatherings are a platform where anybody, and I do mean anybody, can showcase their skills and rise to the top. In one of our hackathons, students from VIT were runners up and they were competing with developers from large product companies and startups.

4. Innovation tools: Hackathons are proving to be a breeding ground for innovation. The lean method of crafting products is helping developers to come up with new ideas quickly. Salesforce has been capitalising on this trend and they conduct a “1 Million Dollar Hackathon” where developers build mobile products on top of the Salesforce1 platform. Companies with APIs are using hackathons heavily nowadays to drive external innovation and build a pipeline of new products. Lot of startups like GroupMe were also born out of hackathons. In our big data hackathon, a team of developers created a tool around a 1 Million Songs Dataset to predict success of an upcoming song. This tool can be used by music producers to do a litmus test on their new productions.

5. Hackathons solving social problems: You need smart guys to solve problems of the society. Hackathons are good platforms to get social activists, designers and developers under a single roof to solve a social problem. We did four hackathons on the theme Tech for Good with the Anita Borg Institute. We had a gathering of female coders who created apps for social change. The hacks that won were a job website for blue collar workers, and cloud telephony solutions for telemedicine. These hacks are live and solving real social problems.

6. Journey vs. Goal (Fish or fishing): Hackathons are a place for people who are intrinsically motivated. They attract people who love to code. Although unsure of the final outcome, it is not uncommon to see people work all night soaking in the caffeine-filled atmosphere.

7. Hiring tool: Hackathons are being touted as the new career fair. According to Techcrunch, “The hackathons are killing the career fairs, particularly the engineering school ones. [Recruiters] want people who can actually build something.” We have done hackathons for Zivame, Surewaves and other startups which have proved to be a good hiring method. In the US, a prominent VC fund Andreessen Horowitz is seen at all hackathons to tap into a hitherto untried talent base.

8. People join people: Good candidates don’t join brands but join people driving those brands. Hackathons are a good way for companies to showcase what they are working on, in addition to those individuals spearheading those projects. Twitter showcases its own people using the handle: @Jointheflock.

9. Unboxing: It is often the case that people are shoehorned into boxes based on their credentials. However, as I will illustrate shortly, hackathons are great learning platforms and as such these events help to bring out hitherto undiscovered or hidden talent.

10. Learning Platform: People misconstrue hackathons as being only for hackers. In fact, everyone at all levels of experience can benefit from participating in such events. After all, in hackathons, you are surrounded by experienced coders who are more than willing to help you out. For more on this subject, check out my friend Dave’s blog post on the subject:

11. Training Arena: There is an old adage which goes something like this: A music student asks his instructor, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” to which his instructor replies, “Practice! Practice! Practice!” Similarly, if coders want to get to the top, they need to practice! And what better way to hone your skills than to participate in a competitive environment like a hackathon?

12. Peer to Peer Learning: Technology has changed the way we learn exposing the limitations of past learning theories. Hackathons are more than just competitions or recruiting tools: they are learning tools. Phillip Schmidtt, the founder of Peer 2 Peer University, says in an informal learning setting, “The expertise is in the group. That’s the message, that everyone can bring something to the conversation.” This sentiment is applicable to hackathons as well.

13. Speed: Since hackathons are timed competitions, the time taken to build and ship products is greatly reduced. Many innovative products and services, such as real-time ride-sharing applications have been tried, or refined in the furnace of hackathons.

14. Hackathon is for everyone: Color no bar, age no bar, sex no bar. In our hackathon Hack for Democracy, Vasan, CTO of Accel Partners, showed the freshers how it was done: he worked all night to develop an app that predicted the length of queues in an election booth. So, to conclude, participating in hackathons is a win-win situation for everyone involved and is well worth your time and effort. Where else can you go to learn so much in such a relatively short period of time? So what are you waiting for? Find the hackathon nearest you and start coding! To help you on your journey, we invite you to participate in our next hackathon in Bangalore on the 17th of January, an API hackathon for Knowlarity, the details of which can be found here. Good luck and happy hacking!

About the author

Subhendu has been active in the startup community and contributing to the ecosystem. Subhendu also happens to be one of the admins in the ‘Bangalore Startups’ group on Facebook which has thousands of members. He is also building another community called Misshackers exclusively for female coders. You can find him on Twitter at @skipiit