Only 4% of Hackers Tap into their Potential, Here’s Why.

I have attended, organized, and judged at 46 hackathons (two to three day coding marathons for caffeinated programmers) since the beginning of my sophomore year of highschool and, to say the very least, the results can be better.

To preface, there were many solid inventions found at the events I’ve been to: accessing the internet through SMS, contraptions that detect disease through pictures of eyeballs, air guitars that you can strum just by waving your hand in front of a camera — and note, there are many other interesting projects that I could have listed. These projects tackled a diversity of issues ranging all the way from curing cancers to figuring out how to educate students in remote parts of the world.

There is an opportunity to gain more out of these projects. At the end of most hackathons, winners are awarded prizes, judges walk around and critique projects, and attendees gain a lot of value out of these events; however, most of the projects are not pursued after the closing ceremony at the hackathon. It’s really unfortunate that most of these projects don’t see the light-of-day after the events conclude.

A Quick Survey

On Facebook, there is a group called “Hackathon Hackers” with 56,000 members consisting of all sorts of people (professionals, college students, middle schoolers, etc) most having attended at least one hackathon. I decided to put together a quick, 20 second long survey, and a nominal cash raffle to gather some data.

I asked four quick and simple questions:

  • Name a project you made.
  • Write one sentence about what it does.
  • Which hackathon did you make it at?
  • How many people used it after you made it?

Using the data from the 43 questionnaire submissions, I assembled a couple infographics to show the findings. Take a look.

Figure #1: Number of Users after Initial Project Creation

Figure #2: Location of Where Projects Were Created

Figure #3: Type of Projects

Things To Notice

Out of the 43 questionnaires that were filled out, there were just two submissions that had greater than 10 users after the initial project creation at the hackathon (4% of the total submissions). These projects were developed across the nation with relatively large clusters of projects being built in California and New York. They were spread over a wide diversity — there were projects that tackled social issues to projects that improves social conditions for citizens with visual impairments.

The ideas behind these projects were phenomenal and, this post would be cluttered if I listed out all of the submissions. Thus, I selected a couple that are listed below:

  • App that finds activities in your area that fit your budget
  • iOS app that adds people on all social media platforms from one QR code scan
  • Sitting posture monitor using just a smart phone
  • Model virtual reality room that shows redesigned room before redesign happens
  • Teach braille using servo motors and a text to speech Microsoft API

Just looking at the ideas, anyone could tell that these are applications and projects that could definitely improve lives — but why were they only used by ten or fewer people each after the initial creation? I needed to find out so, I reached out out to the creators of a couple of projects and asked another question, “Why did ten or fewer people use your project after the hackathon?”

The answers I received were nuanced but in general, the answers were:

  • My project did not work completely
  • My project was “too hacky”
  • I thought that people would not use it

Surprising, and unfortunate.

Personal Experience

At the end of the study, I was surprised. These projects, for the most part, were based on revolutionary and truly impactful ideas. Once further developed and implemented, I could imagine many people using them — yet only 2 out of 43 of the projects grew into something bigger than “just a hackathon project.”

The key change programmers and hackathon attendees need to make, to really bring out the potential of their hacks, is to have people use and see their projects after the hackathon. Personally speaking, I am guilty of not pursuing my projects after hackathons (in the past) but, I changed that quite recently. Back in January, I created Memory, an Alexa Based Assistant for Alzheimer’s, at HackDavis (UC Davis’s Hackathon) with Dee Guo and Kunal Patel. Our team ended up winning “Amazon’s Best Use of Alexa API” Prize and we could have easily just accepted the prizes, dropped the project altogether, and drove home.

We didn’t. Instead, after coming back to university, we asked friends and colleagues to check out the project and share their thoughts and, it turned out that a lot of our peers had seniors in their lives with Alzheimer’s or dementia… who knew? This epiphany catalyzed this “hackathon project” and turned it into a full fledged startup that is currently working out of Menlo Park. But note, it all started with asking others.

What Hackathons and Hackers Need to Do

Hackathon organizers right now are doing a great job making an energetic and collaboration-conducive environment during the span of the event but they are missing one thing — support for projects and teams after the event. This support should not exist for just the winners, it should exist for everyone because chances are, the judges at the hackathon might have missed a truly revolutionary project due to the sheer number of submissions. Don’t lose a diamond in the rough by focusing on the emeralds that emerged.

This support can come in many different shapes and forms but, in essence, the support the hackathon gives needs to help the hackers help others. For example, I am currently directing UC Berkeley’s collegiate hackathon, Cal Hacks, and we recently started an initiative called “Hacker Culture”. This initiative does numerous things but one of our goals is to get hacks into the hands of non-attendees. Hackathons have a wide social-media reach, connections to tons of communities, and access to many, many people. Use those outlets to help your attendees get their projects in the hands of others (or at least remind them to share their project with others). This could change the course of their lives, and the lives of all the people affected by their invention.

And for the hackers, you need to share! I have been behind that keyboard, I’ve cranked out code over the course of the night, and like many of you I have also lost sight of the light at the end of the tunnel — it is very important not to forget that these inventions and ideas are things that are meant to be used by others. I understand that oftentimes, there may be other time commitments in your lives that prevent you from pursuing an additional project, or it seems like the project is “too hacky”, or it may even seem like a dumb idea… but why assume when you can quickly check and confirm?

Who knows, maybe that project might be more advantageous than what you are currently doing? Who knows, maybe others might want to help you polish up the project? Who knows, maybe others think your “dumb idea” isn’t actually dumb?

You would. It all starts with talking to others.

Venture into uncertainty, invite others to see and use what you create, unlock the potential.
Make the world a better place, one hackathon project at a time.

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Original post was on my LinkedIn on July 4th, 2017.

Extending my gratitude to Dee Guo, Ishan Sharma, and Hitesh Adesara for editing this first post.