WHY is a Hackathon?


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A question often asked: What is a Hackathon?

"hackathon" defined

Google’s definition (above) is more or less accurate. Wikipedia says it is an “event in which computer programmers and others…including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software projects. Occasionally, there is a hardware component as well.” Also fairly well stated.

Nick was able to explain hackathons to his parents in a pretty easy to understand way. And our friend Jon at Twilio educated us on their history and evolution.

“What,” to me, is not the best way to ask the question.

Inquiring Outside the Box

Rather than explain a hackathon in terms of “what?” it may be better explained by answering “why?”

Why is a hackathon a thing?”

For all of these reasons:

  1. Community.
  2. To learn & teach.
  3. To solve problems.
  4. To create something new.
  5. To meet like-minded people.
  6. To build, because building is fun and rewarding.
  7. To gain the respect of peers, through creative expression.
  8. To collaboratively push the limits of technology as we know it today.

Not for all of these reasons:

  1. To help companies sell their product and/or commission free labor.
  2. To launch and/or fund new or existing businesses.
  3. To earn money and win prizes.

This isn’t to say that the second set of results can’t or mustn’t happen at a hackathon. But it is to say that they shouldn’t be the focal point. This distinction is important, because hackathons have become pervasive in communities across the globe.

Critical Mass

use of the word "hackathon" over timeGoogle shows (left) that the use of the word has skyrocketed over the last few years. As a result of the rise in popularity and penetration into the mainstream, lots of people are writing and speaking on the topic.

Companies are being built to make hackathons better; and the really good ones are being acquired.

In an ever-growing community, with new people discovering hackathons every day, it’s important that we maintain a certain set of defining attributes and continue to meet community members’ reasonable expectations. When a developer or designer shows up at an event, she should know what she’s getting herself into–just like any other event.

A simple, opinionated tweet can spark a passionate debate around what a hackathon is and isn’t. This debate is healthy and necessary, because such discussion keeps us honest. But online and offline conversations only go so far in influencing the real world.

After Why, Define

We also define hackathons through practice. There has been a recent trend of events that arguably deviate from our historically accepted definition and therefore beg the question – do we need a different word (or words) to describe these other, hackathon-like  events?

Throughout human evolution, we’ve assigned certain vocal sounds to specific, commonly understood meanings. As a society, we establish words and use them to represent certain physical things and intangible concepts. We even write them all down in a big book, so everyone knows what each word means. Proper use of words helps us reach a common understanding. But, if we allow words to indicate drastically different things, don’t they then lose their relevance?

It’s up to those of us in positions of influence to help ensure that we stay true to the essence of these awesome events.
To be clear, I do not propose that we stifle further evolution of hackathons; they can (and should) change over time, but the community must remain aware and guide change in a positive direction that’s good for the doers.
I propose we call a hackathon a hackathon, and when organizing events for the community, we should ask ourselves “Why are we creating this event?”

Answers that fall within the eight reasons above: it just might be a hackathon.  Answers in the second group of reasons: maybe we should consider a different label — startup-a-thon, micro-accelerator, investment competition? If we’re creative enough to design a new event format, we can surely conjure up an appropriate term to describe it. Remember when we made up the word hackathon?

By observing the traditions of the hackathon, we nourish the roots that have supported the emergence of a strong community over the past decades. By embracing innovative events newly introduced to the community, we create more value throughout the ecosystem. By maintaining a distinction between disparate opportunities, we allow community members (individuals and companies) to more easily and deliberately optimize their experience and personal development.

A note from the author:

I hope this post serves as a continuation of a constructive, ongoing conversation and a source of awareness around the state of the global developer/startup community. I intend to write other related posts to keep the conversation going. I look forward to hearing the perspectives of others!

Young Rewired State youth hackathon in SF

Young Rewired State youth hackathon in SF


Director, Developer Relations at @SendGrid. Passionate about bringing people together around things they love. I tweet at @TimFalls.

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