Hackathons are already a giant movement worldwide, especially in the US and now in Europe with the recent launch of the MLH season in that region.

They’ve been growing more and more in South America as people, communities, and companies are exposed to them and see the value in helping and organizing. A common question that hackathon organizers ask me is: Should we have a theme for our hackathon?

Well, let’s do a blog post to help answer that question!

What’s a Hackathon?

So let’s start by quickly defining a hackathon: Hackathons are time-limited events that will usually vary between 1-3 days, where mostly tech-related people such as developers and designers, and non-technical people get together to work on projects.

Open or Themed?

You can categorize hackathons in a lot of different ways: local vs. online (rails rumble, nodeknockout), social or non-social, money-prize or items, and themed vs. open. Themed hackathons range from:

  • Social – like PayPal BattleHack, where participants are incentivized to make hacks for their community.
  • Event – like World Cup, where the event is based on the sporting event.
  • Technology – Where participants are incentivized (sometimes required) to use specific technologies such as a language, framework, or a company’s technology.

That’s only listing a few different types, so let’s check out what the positives and negatives are between an open or themed hackathon:

Positives and Negatives

Breaking it down to a few points, this is my point of view on themed hackathons vs. non-themed hackathons:

Themed Hackathons!

Positives:

  • Helps participants focus on one specific theme
  • Easier for first-time participants to find an idea
  • There’s always one creative solution that’s built
  • May be easier to find sponsors based on theme
  • Social hackathons may actually result in hacks that help the community (although most hacks never go past the hackathon)

Negatives:

  • Less creative hacks/ideas in general
  • Lots of similar hacks, either in the same hackathon or between similar-themed hackathons
  • Depending on the theme, it may actually hurt your brand

Non-Themed Hackathons!

Positive side:

  • More varied hacks
  • No need to force any technologies/frameworks/APIs on participants, but you can still do “Best Use of…” prizes

Negative side:

  • Harder for first-time participants
  • May be harder to find sponsors

Conclusion

My personal opinion: non-themed hackathons are usually a better option for participants. Having witnessed a lot of events of both types, as an attendee and organizer, I always appreciate having the liberty to work on any idea, however silly or crazy it might be. I definitely appreciate hackathons with a theme every so often (Music, Art, Comedy) to force me get out of my comfort zone, but I appreciate even more so hackathons that have a theme and only count that as a small part of the overall judging criteria. Nick Quinlan has a great post on judging hackathons that you can check out as well. 🙂



Heitor is a Developer Evangelist at SendGrid based in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Passionate about hackathons, games and entrepeneurship.