Why Hackathons Need Fewer Hackers

Hackers can code — but first they need an idea.

That’s me — 2nd in from the right. Consider this my street cred for making this argument.

What hackathons really need is for people with awesome ideas to show up and add value by inspiring their team members.

The Problem

People who attend hackathons can build all sorts of things, but most don’t have any ideas for what to hack (code/develop/build). And most of the people I’ve talked to with the coolest ideas don’t attend hackathons because those people think they need to be able to write code to add value to a hackathon team.

At AngelHackSF, there were easily 40 people who, at the beginning of the hackathon, stood up and introduced themselves to the room to say some version of the following:

“Hi, my name is Joe Hacker and I’m a front-end developer. I don’t have an idea, but I’m really excited to work with a team. So yeah, let me know if you’re interested!”

There were front-end, back-end, full-stack, Python, Java, iOS, all sorts. And for those of you who this article is intended for — the idea people — all those words and phrases mean is that the hackers at hackathons can build anything you can think of. But they can’t think of your idea!

The hackers at hackathons can build anything you can think of. But they can’t think of your idea!

Both the Cognitive Builder Faire and AngelHackSF had Slack channels that people could use to organize teams as well. Each hackathon had different ways of helping people organize teams, and sponsors set up prizes for incorporating specific tools into your project, so that help with inspiration, too. But, at the end of the day, hackathons have tons of coders (stereotypical “hackers”) and a serious lack of people with ideas for what to actually build during the hackathon.

The Solution

Encourage people who have ideas to attend hackathons, even if those people cannot write a single line of code. Seriously, it’s time to bust the myth that you have to be a hard-core coder to go attend a hackathon. So, please, allow me the honors:

You do not have to be able to write a single line of code to add serious value to a hackathon team.

Hackathons have plenty of coders. What hackathons need are people who have big ideas (even small ideas are great!) and are super flexible about how to bring those ideas to life. If you can’t completely pivot and scrap everything your team has been working on for the past day 1 hour before you are going to pitch your idea, don’t go to a hackathon. But if you have an idea, or two, or you’re just overflowing with ideas, and you want to meet some people who might be able to bring elements of those ideas to life, go to a hackathon!

What hackathons need are people who have big ideas (even small ideas are great!) and are super flexible about how to bring those ideas to life.

Another Myth Bites the Dust:

You Don’t Have to Pull An All-Nighter to Win a Hackathon

While you’re here, I’d like to bust another myth: that hackathons require attendees, either officially or unofficially, to pull all nighters. This is just not true. Sure, people do pull all nighters, or sleep only a handful of hours, but that isn’t a necessary ingredient to a winning a hackathon. At IBM’s Cognitive Builder Faire, I went home at 10:30 pm and arrived back the next morning at 9:30 am. For AngelHackSF, I took a Lyft home at 11pm on Day 1 and I came in the next morning at 10:30am. And just in case someone tries to argue that my team stayed up and picked up my slack, my value add is pitching, and I came up with most of my team’s pitch for AngelHackSF (where we won 1st place) while traveling to Galvanize in the morning on Day 2. Let me repeat: you can sleep at night and still win a hackathon!

You can sleep at night and still win a hackathon!

Bottom Line

Hackathons have more than enough people who can build things, whether by coding or building physical prototypes. What hackathons need are people who have ideas. Ready to put my theory to the test? Sign up to volunteer at the GET Summit in San Francisco, CA, May 17–18, 2017 at https://www.getsummit.org/volunteers.

A little bit about the GET Summit:

“The GET Summit is a multi-day conference and networking event convening leaders in the rapidly evolving space of election technology. This nonpartisan event provides a forum to build the technology infrastructure that enables innovation in election technology. Attendees include government officials, private industry, academia, media, and civil society organizations.”

I Hope to See You There!

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