Dear Corporations, Please Stop Throwing Your Own Hackathons
Why You Should Support Major League Hacking, Instead.
Last week, the Salesforce $1 Million Hackathon took place.
The Dangers of Single Company Hackathons
Hackathons have always existed for hackers. They are a space where we come together for a weekend to celebrate the spirit of building things.
Unfortunately, the large majority of corporate hackathons are trying to take advantage of this, and they are failing hard.
Here’s a quick rundown of the problems I see:
1.Corporate hackathons treat developers as slaves of their platform.
Rather than promote creative freedom, they often force you to build on top of their own platform. I’ve been reached out far too many times to by company X saying that they want to throw a hackathon to get developers to build on their platform. They think that in exchange for some free pizza, energy drinks, and prizes, code monkeys can build things they would otherwise have to contract out for — hackathons are not meant to be mini-corporate R&D labs. Restricting hackers to working on one platform stifles creativity.
2.Big prizes lead to questionable judging.
Many companies use large prizes to attract hackers. Right off the bat, this encourages hackers to attend for the all wrong reasons. Hackathons are about spirit of bringing the community together to build and innovate. Prizes are nice, but if that’s the only reason developers are attending your hackathon, you are doing something wrong. Second, when a single company is judging a hackathon, they can easily skew the judging process however they would like. Whether that is in an attempt to sway a potential hire or simply to hook an ex-employee up. Dreamforce didn’t even view most of the submissions.
3.Companies don’t want what hackers want.
“The reasons that your company does hackathons and the reasons that developers do hackathons are fundamentally different. There’s a very small subset of developer whom want to be marketed to and recruited, and usually, that subset isn’t the one you’re trying to hit.”
-Mike Swift, Major League Hacking
Instead of diving right into hacking, many of these hackathons begin with sometimes hours of talks about how great company x is. At most, hackers want tech talks about how they can leverage your platform, not a talk on how your company (like every other) is changing the world. While you are hacking, may even be unpleasantly interrupted to hear the sales pitch on joining the company. There’s almost a sense of entitlement that the company deserves your attention at will because they bought you free pizza and caffeine. Some corporate hackathons even try to take ownership of your code at the end.
4.Attracting developers as a single company is extremely expensive.
In the end, the results do all the talking. Dreamforce had only <150 submissions despite all the press and the million dollar prize. The student hackathons that took over the country this year each had well over 200 teams submit. When deciding to throw your own corporate hackathon, you should heavily consider why you are doing it.
Instead of throwing the $1 Million Debacle, Salesforce could have taken the top sponsorship at every single one of the mega student hackathons this year. By bringing engineers and having some cool prizes, they could have had hundreds of teams build on top of their platform while also capturing the attention of thousands of the top up-and-coming hackers from across the globe.
If you want to jump into the whole hackathon thing (you should), then definitely make sure you aren’t throwing a single company hackathon. Unless you really know what you are doing, alternatives to get in with multiple companies like API Hack Day, Launch Hackathon, or the mega college hackathons like MHacks give you way more bang for your buck. Not to mention you don’t have to worry about throwing the event, just your strategy for getting the most out of it.
College Hackathons == The Golden Value Prop
As a company, here’s why you want to be involved in student hackathons:
1.You’ll get access to the top up-and-coming developer talent.
In terms of recruiting, college hackathons are the new career fair.
At a corporate hackathon, your filter for talent is people who both have the time to attend and want to win your prizes; at a college hackathon, you find the top undiscovered hackers who are actively looking for opportunities. College hackathons have the best untapped talent—regardless of major or university, these students are spending their weekend building out their own ideas. Not only are they capable of doing so, but also ambitious enough to make it happen. Companies and VCs like A16Z, Twilio, Facebook, Google, Apple, and more are already on top of their hackathon game. You should be too.
2.Build a community around your product.
At a college hackathon, you meet students from hundreds of universities all across the globe. You also meet people from tons of other companies in the industry. Throughout the hackathon you build real relationships with people, hear discussions raging on just about every new technology and framework, and become part of something that’s far more than just a one-off event.
Rather than a strictly competitive atmosphere, college hackathons create an environment where mentorship is key. There is no better way to be introduced to a potential hire than as a mentor who can work through a problem with them. You simultaneously get to help the student out while also getting a really upfront look at their skills. The best recruiting happens over time through genuine relationships and this is where many of those relationships begin.
3.Focus on educating young developers.
Contrary to popular belief, hackathons are not about the hacks. Having a product at the end of the weekend is great, but what you learned building it is really what counts. While corporate hackathons try to push building something that will last past the weekend, hackathons simply aren’t the medium for building long-lasting products. Hackathons build long-lasting hackers. I’ve met hundreds of students who went to their first hackathon having never built something before. These are now some of the best hackers that I know. At a hackathon, you will meet hackers before they even know what they’re capable of, and you’ll have the opportunity to help them grow.
College hackathons promote hacker culture, build the hacker community, and effectively increase the quality of the talent pool that you are recruiting from. While single company hackathons can end in disaster, college hackathons simply provide a much higher ROI. For a fraction of the cost of throwing your own hackathon, you can reach 10x the hackers by sponsoring MHacks or any of the other mega college hackathons.
When you sponsor a college hackathon, everyone wins.