Death by Hackathon (in EU)

Hackathons are amazing. They offer you lots of benefits: a time-limited tech challenge, great environment to meet people, cheap beer, fast-food and tons of FUN.

Before participating, organising, or being part of the judge of any Hackathon in the future, please read this: you might be on time to save innovation.

If you are familiar with these events in the US, it might surprise you how different they are in Europe. Ever since I moved to Copenhagen, I participated in two Hackathons: one organised by Uber, one organised by Maersk.

The theme for the first Hackathon was to “Make Copenhagen a Smarter City”. It lasted two days and half, around a dozen teams pitched at the end. The venue was the Founders House, both participants and organisers were extremely diverse. The judge was a mix of Uber engineers, academics in technology and innovation, and the Director of Founders House, Kasper.

We were three in our team and we built a iOS native app written in Swift. The idea was to create a platform where people could post simple tasks and hire anyone else on hourly-basis to take care of it. The “Genies” would get paid a fixed rate/h in exchange. After 20 hours, we reached the MVP: back-end, client-server connection, Uber APIs intergration, and a decent UI.

The jury decided that our team (Captain Teemo) was the winner and we were extremely grateful that our efforts were recognised. However, we were lucky that a big part of the jury were engineers and real entrepreneurs, who were also mingling with all the teams. From all the pitches, only 2 of them actually developed the tech, Aubergenie and another team that already came with a micro-chip attachable to jewelry. The rest of teams were presenting beautiful slides about a business model, which relied on some tech, almost nobody built anything during those two days and half.

We were not so lucky in Maersk’s Hackathon. The theme was “Move the World” and participants were allowed to develop a product related to data, IoT or anything that would bring value to Maersk and the shipping industry. When we arrived, we were overwhelmed by the amount of teams wearing suits and shirts (I was wearing random shorts, it was summer, c’mon!).

Initially, we wanted to develop a smartphone app that automatised personnel management on a vessel. Then we realised that our idea was too much “off-the-shelf”, so we decided to create a web platform as the UI for creating and managing smart contracts, which were created using Ethereum. The objective was to get rid of all the paperwork involved in shipping, as well as common issues that the legacy system had: lack of integrity, authenticity, confidentiality, privacy and availability. In short, the shipping industry was full of frauds, inconsistencies and inefficiencies. We named our solution Freighthereum (I still think it was a great name). This time we were given a day and half.

The first time we saw the jury was five minutes before the pitch, at least for our team. They were three Maersk executives, plus a representative from Microsoft. Around a dozen teams pitched, and I was impressed by the amount of teams devoted to IoT, making sensors for containers.

Unfortunately, none of the three winning teams did actually build anything. Even the team in the first place was talking about sensors, but did not bother about implementing any IoT (which was extremely surprising, considering how many other teams actually built the gadgets). Another team, as a first sentence during the pitch, nonchalantly said that they did not build anything, they were just presenting the idea they had (which relied on Ethereum, but were not even able to explain the tech) and spent those 36 hours brainstorming. Finally, in the third place, the guys presented a to-do list aiming to improve the service for premium Maersk’s customers. In short, it seemed that the jury was just playing the lottery, when deciding who would win.

And here is the reason why I am writing this article. If you are participating, these experiences might give you an idea of what to expect before the event. If you are organising or part of the jury, please remember the following:

  1. Learn the difference: Hackathon OR Business Case Competition. Don’t use the word “Hackathon” as a title for your event, if what the jury values is the business idea behind.
  2. Presence of the jury: The jury should be present as much as possible during the Hackathon. Having the jury show-up in the last minute is alright when the competition is a Business Case.
  3. Be transparent: Give as much information to the participants as possible, not only about the event, but also about the expectations. This will prevent frustration from a lot of teams that have been building non-stop and let them make informed decisions.

Why I say that these three points could save innovation? Because teams are human beings. When a team works hard and pours efforts, it becomes personal. When these efforts are not recognised and frustration is awaken in their hearts, they might start blaming themselves and question their abilities, even think that their idea is not good enough and be demotivated.

Kasper, director of the Founders House, once said “I have a huge notebook full of awesome ideas, I write them down and then forget about it”. Everyone can have great ideas, but what matters is the team behind working, turning it into reality. By feeding this vicious circle of “more talking, less doing”, us, Europeans, are delaying this innovation and entrepreneurship race in front of the US and Asia.

At the end of the day, we still wonder, why don’t we have a Silicon Valley in Europe? How could we ever reach the American or Chinese level, if we can’t even bring the Hackathon Spirit to the third most happy country in the world?

This article it is also a shout cheering all those hackers out there, who always give their best no matter what the juries say. The learning experience is what really matters, I learnt how to mine Ethereums (ETH), how blockchain worked and tons of JavaScript and Microsoft Azure services. Furthermore, from Uber’s Hackathon, we dedicated our summer to build a Start-Up from Aubergenie (now called AvoGenie). The truth is that nobody can stop organisers from using “Hackathon” as a buzzword, but it is on your hands as a participant to change the misconception and bring the true spirit, no matter how though it can be to pick the wrong battles. If we didn’t build anything during Uber’s Hackathon, it would’ve ended up being the same as Maersk.

#KeepHacking! Efforts always pay off (there will always be beer and pizza anyways!)

Origin article first posted on: (My personal blog)

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