The Present & The Future of Hackathons

an essay by Karan Goel

A few weeks ago, there was a rather relevant and popular thread on Hacker News titled “The rising “Hackathon Hackers” culture”. There is one rather disturbing, but mostly true, complaint from the author’s rants that I want to bring to your attention: “Hackathons are great to try out new technologies, meet new people and outreach to demographics that are traditionally under-represented in CS but I don’t like where this is headed.”

I don’t like it either.

I have been a very active member of the “Hackathon Hacker” community since almost the beginning. (For those who don’t know, HH is the name of the Facebook group for people who attend hackathons). I started there as a hackathon attendee and stayed on as a hackathon organizer (See DubHacks). In the last two years, as the hackathon scene was quickly expanding, I attended over a dozen of them, but recently stopped doing so because I share some of the author’s concerns.

All the hackathons I attended were about, well, hacking things together. To use the words of the HN post’s author, “students who believe to be 1000x [software engineers] because they can stick two APIs together and use bootstrap end-up to be very condescending older engineers.”. At the end of the hackathon, the resulting hacky codebase is practically unusable. This hacky codebase doesn’t really help me become a better engineer; I can throw rocks together to make a cave but that doesn’t mean someone could hire me to make a skyscraper.

But there is a reason for that, that goes back into how the hackathon organizers think and operate, and how the human perception works. The most technically advanced project is not as glamourous as a new sexting app that guarantees a hookup. To that end, most hackathons don’t challenge participants to innovate, instead to “make something cool”. I have seen only a few truly innovative projects being made in only a weekend at hackathons that did not get enough attention, let alone a prize, because they weren’t cool enough. When most hackathon ideas are conceived, the pitch starts with “you know what would be cool” instead of “you know what might change the world”.

Having seen a lot of hackathons inside out, I realized why this was happening. When you put a homogenous group of students who have similar backgrounds, the solutions they make hardly ever touch the lives of those in need. The tech industry definitely has a diversity problem and the current hackathon model doesn’t help solve that. That doesn’t mean we should just suck it up and ignore it. It is our duty as builders of the future to make an effort to try to solve it, to try and be more inclusive in our hackathons. And not just by gender, race or color, but even by proficiency of the students. It’s not just the greatest, best-ever, rockstar designers and developers who deserve a platform of learning and innovating.

The beauty of engineering is that every problem has a solution. At the end of the day, I think hackathons have their own place in helping schools become more progressive and to give students exposure they would not get in a classroom. I believe that the best hackathons are the ones that motivate new comers to try something new and to give life to their ideas with resources, and mentorship from the industry. The focus of hackathons, I believe, should be on learning and networking rather than winning. The best hackathons should give students an opportunity to connect with other students of diverse backgrounds, help them interact with top companies and give them a place to be innovative.

When we announced DubHacks Spring 2015 a few days ago we made an open promise to everyone.

“We’re aiming to achieve a 50-50 female/male ratio of both attendees and mentors”

We are not stopping there. DubHacks Spring 2015 is being geared towards new comers and beginners who want to explore the field. After talking to a lot of younger students we realized what they really needed was the right mentorship and resources. We promise to have the best of those at DubHacks Spring 2015 and hope this will help jumpstart their career in STEM.

We believe these first steps will set a new standard and begin a movement among hackathon organizers to practice, not just preach, inclusiveness. We believe that creating change takes an effort by the community. Incremental steps are not enough anymore, we need something radical. We promise to not stop trying to be part of this change. If you support us, please apply to attend DubHacks and urge your friends to apply too. If you are unable to attend, please share the website with your friends and your school mates. Be part of something great!

Cover image: flickr