Hey #HackAus, do we really need to certify hackathons?

Image: Keyboard at UNIHACK Mini 2016 (taken by Tom Solari Photography)

Disclaimer: the views expressed here are simply my own opinions. They do not represent the views of the UNIHACK Organising Committee, or any person or organisation mentioned in this article.

If you haven’t noticed, Australia has reached peak hackathon. Almost every single week, there has been at least one hackathon somewhere in Australia. For better or worse, hackathons are a sign that people (and companies) are looking to be innovative or — at the very least — shake the status quo.

As a competitor, peak hackathon means a lot of cash and prizes potentially up for grabs. And free money and prizes is always a good thing — even if you decide to deprive yourself of sleep for 24 hours to make sure your app and pitch are absolutely perfect.

As an organiser, however, peak hackathon is hell. There is a lot of pressure to have your event to be of a similar quality to successful hackathons — such as GovHack, Random Hacks of Kindness, Battlehack, and (of course, #shamelessplug) UNIHACK.

It also means a lot of competition to make sure your event stands out from the noise and attracts the right type of people.

So when I heard that Hackathons Australia — a group that aims to be the peak representative body of hackathons in the country — has decided to certify hackathons, I thought it was a joke. When I told my friends about this, they also thought it was a joke.

But no, it’s not a joke. Hackathons Australia really wants to certify hackathons in Australia.

So why do they want to certify hackathons? According to Hackathons Australia, the idea is to ensure “consistent high-quality events are run” based on criteria “extracted from organisers who have run the most successful Hackathons in Australia.”

It’s fine to want other hackathon organisers to create quality events, and help facilitate this.

But through certification?

I’m worried that implementing certification will effectively make one or two people the gatekeepers of hackathons in Australia — determining if you have the so-called right to be a called a hackathon based on vague criteria (like “making a difference”) that is not public, and has had no consultation with other hackathon organisers.

And that would be very bad for the hackathon community.

Would Hackathons Australia ‘certify’ a Terrible Ideas hackathon — a hackathon deliberately designed to come up with the worst ideas in the world just for laughs? Based on the “makes a difference” and having “working solutions implemented into real life situations” criteria, I doubt it.

Certification also creates a false promise — especially those who are new to the hackathon scene — that anything that is ‘certified’ should be trusted, and those without should not.

UNIHACK is not certified. Random Hacks of Kindness is not certified. Hackagong is not certified. Unearthed is not certified. GovHack is not certified. SheHacks is not certified. The many events that the “Hackathon queen” (Michelle Mannering) runs are not certified.

Should all of them be trusted?

Obviously yes.

Now, I am not against helping other fellow hackathon organisers — especially those who are new to organising such an event. However, certification is the wrong way to do it.

I believe in a “mentorship” approach, where new hackathon organisers can ask questions and get advice from a person who have organised such events before.

And it definitely works.

When I was starting up UNIHACK, I got some advice from Major League Hacking. When I started to grow UNIHACK, I got some advice from Developer Steve (who ran BattleHack), and — later on — Michelle Mannering.

And when Monash University’s eSolutions decided to run their very first hackathon (called Hackamon), I provided help and advice on how to run a hackathon — giving them enough leeway to change it up to suit their needs (since it was all about improving the lives of students, staff and researchers at Monash University).

That is not to say I know all the answers on how to run a hackathon — I definitely don’t. There were things that the organisers of Hackamon added to their event that I would love to adopt into UNIHACK next year. For example, they had dedicated sessions where teams can practice their pitches in front of a panel of mentors; and regular ‘spot checks’ to see the progress of each team (and makes it easier for mentors to figure out which teams need help).

Hackathon organisers should be — and are — willing to help other organisers with their events.

And I think that is a much better approach to ensure quality than certification. Especially for an organisation that wants to build up a community between hackathon organisers in Australia.


Now, originally when I decided to write this post, I was going to give a final draft of this post to Hackathons Australia so they could prepare a response and publish it on their own Facebook page or Medium post.

Well, that didn’t happen. Someone sent an earlier, near-completed draft of this post, and they weren’t happy.

As a way to mend fences, I told them I’ll publish their response to my criticisms of their ‘certification’ program in the post .

Their response is below:

Hackathons Australia’s aim is to empower hackathon organisers and bring hackathon organisers and competitors together as one community. We do this with focus on organisers and spreading our collective experiences on how a hackathon should be run, especially communicating that to people who haven’t run a hackathon before.
Our certification program is response from the feedback provided by the community so far, especially new organisers. Hackathons Australia feels it’s one of the ways to allow us to give back our nationally leading experience to our peers. We’ve been advised in the past that it is hard for those who want to run Hackathons and have never been to one to run one, so we’re hoping to change that.
The certification program is not about being a gatekeeper or approving Hackathons that are run in Australia. In fact we encourage all hackathons of all forms to be run, from the super serious to the downright wacky. All we are offering is the opportunity to show the community that they have the approval of experienced organisers who have run some of the largest hackathons in Australia. If organisations wish to not certify that’s totally okay as well and won’t be disadvantaged in any way in our emails or promotions or community events.
Certifications ensure new and even existing organisers have the right people, process, frameworks, and tools to facilitate innovation. We all know that even when we’ve run a million events, there’s still something new to learn from our collective experience. Engaging the community is the way the team at Hackathons Australia works. We’re always open to feedback from the community, so we can collectively help and move forward together.

Now despite Hackathons Australia saying it is not the intention that the program is “not being about being a gatekeeper or approving Hackathons that are run in Australia” — I’m worried that’s the perception they will create with this idea to business, new/potential hackers who are joining the scene, or to the general public.

Again, there are better ways to help new organisers run hackathons than certification. A ‘mentorship’ program as I mentioned above, or even publishing a guidebook on how to run hackathons that people can easily add to via GitHub (like Major League Hacking).

It’ll be interesting to see what other hackathon organisers say about Hackathons Australia certification.

Like this article? Feel free to click that heart button at the bottom of this article. Feel free to also send in your thoughts to me: @terencehuynh on Twitter or through the ‘Responses’ section at Medium.
(Yes, I know. Obligatory ‘engagement’ thing. #dealwithit)