Why a Reverse Hackathon, and Why Now

Kevin Feng
May 28, 2019 · 6 min read

For the a greater part of this past year, a small team and I have been working behind the scenes on a new and exciting project: Rehack. It’s a “reverse hackathon” for college students, and we can’t wait to share it with the world. But what is a reverse hackathon, exactly? Why are we creating one, and why are we doing this now? If you’re curious about these questions, you’re in the right place! We suspect you’re not alone in your questions, so on behalf of the Rehack team, I’d like to introduce you a little more to our project.

Many of you may have heard of hackathons: programming “marathons” where you, as part of a small team, write code and build software to solve a particular problem in mind, usually within a 24, 36, or even 48-hour time constraint. After the time is up, you will demo what you’ve built to some judges and hopefully win some cool techy prizes. You may have even been to a hackathon (if you haven’t, I definitely recommend it — they can be really fun!) After attending a few hackathons myself and despite the fun and good friends I’ve made, I began noticing some flaws with the conventional hackathon model. I’ll group them into the following three main areas: diversity, health, and process.

Diversity

It’s not surprising that a programming marathon type of event is dominated by computer science and other technical STEM majors. But that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that non-technical majors have a high barrier of entry. Since the final product is made from a bunch of code, the successful projects are usually built with heavy code contributions from all members of the team. This means that when ambitious hackathon participants — “hackers” — are looking for team members, they want people who can contribute technically. Unfortunately, not everyone has this ability. It then naturally follows that those with less technical skills have less capability to fully express their ideas at a hackathon. I’ve seen many instances at hackathons where a less technically adept team struggled to find a solid starting point even with a fantastic idea, while other teams can just hit the ground running (some even come with pre-prepared code!).

Should hackathons be like this? Software product development sure shouldn’t. A well-built product has substantial amounts of user research, interface design, and user testing in addition to great technical implementation. This means you need more than just technical heads around the table. Both technically and non-technically minded people have vital contributions in the software world, but it doesn’t seem that way at hackathons.

Health

Hackathons are, for the most part, not the healthiest events. As a hacker, you are sitting in front of the computer, moving very little, and coding most of the time (if not all the time). For overnight hackathons, many stay up late into the night or don’t sleep at all so they can get as much work done on their project as possible. It doesn’t help that frequent sponsors for snacks and drinks include Red Bull, Monster, and Awake (caffeine-packed chocolate), among others. Is there a healthier approach we can take that still incorporates fun, a great learning experience and engagement with technology?

Process

Hackathons are supposed to foster technological innovation. The high-level hackathons, such as Greylock Hackfest or TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, can consistently generate some incredibly brilliant, original, and well-executed ideas. However, this is not always the case with other hackathons, especially collegiate ones. Most teams struggle to come up with a truly original idea, and those who are unable to think of one or cannot execute their novel idea end up copying other existing projects, in both idea and code. While remaking something may be a good learning experience, it doesn’t get creative juices flowing and an opportunity for innovation is lost. Also, few teams actually continue working on their project after a hackathon. So many hackers are rushing to build something that already exists and works well, only to leave it untouched after the event. It just seems like kind of a pity.

What’s more is that the fundamental questions of “why are we building this?” and “how does the technology interface with the user?” can get buried in this process. The hackathon space is becoming more and more saturated, all with the traditional model, which only encourages product development in the form of a fast, blind charge to the finish line. Sure, one can learn a new technical tool or two at a hackathon, but can we do more? How can we get people to think deeper about what they’re building?

A New Take on the Hackathon

Introducing our new take on the traditional hackathon: the reverse hackathon. Instead of coming up with a problem that needs to be solved with software (we decided to focus on consumer software), hackers identify issues in current software products and prototype solutions to those issues. We are “reverse engineering” the hackathon process: going from product to idea instead of idea to product.

The final product that will be presented to judges can be built with code (such as a web/mobile app) or it can be designed (interactive prototypes and user flows). Hackers can prototype features to add onto current software, or they can create something entirely new. Because we have more than one channel to express ideas, no coding experience is necessary to succeed. We focus more on the intention, the why’s of a product, and asking pointed questions about what works and doesn’t work in current tech products instead of purely technical implementation.

We think this is the best way to create interdisciplinary dialogue about today’s consumer technology and think about the products we use every day through a critical lens. Yes, the old “move fast and break things” way works in many cases, but at some point we need to go back and fix what’s broken. And now’s a better time than ever to do so.

So Why Now?

We believe we are at an interesting time in which we are grounded in technology, but are cautious about idolizing its existence. We are grateful for the new connections social media provides, but are becoming aware of the negative mental health effects and data privacy malpractices that come with it. We often see apps that that look helpful, but ultimately fail us because the engineers didn’t understand the users. We enjoy benefits of personalized app experiences made possible with machine learning but realize that the biases inherent in ML algorithms can hurt us in ways we didn’t expect.

It seems like almost everyone is talking about how consumer technology has gotten past the point of benefitting us and is downgrading society instead. The media. Technologists. Educators. Academics. My barber. This pessimistic outlook is most likely perpetuated by the negative effects of technology we see around us, some of which are mentioned above. However, the resources to tackle such problems are unprecedentedly robust. Recently, there has been an increased emphasis on usability of interfaces: UI/UX is rapidly growing as a career field and screen design tools such as Sketch, InVision, and Figma are more accessible than ever. Companies such as IDEO are effectively spreading the spirit of human-centered design and rapid prototyping to tech companies and educational institutions alike. Foundations such as Center for Humane Technology and Hack Mental Health are raising awareness about issues in contemporary tech.

We have the climate. We have the resources. And we definitely have the talent. It’s time to encourage students in developing creative solutions to allow for greater and healthier relationships between people and their technology. By bringing together students with diverse areas of expertise, we hope to begin an interdisciplinary conversation on re-engineering current technology to be more fair and socially responsible, one that will sustain itself even after the event. The time to redesign our technology is now, and we hope Rehack can be a guiding light in this new movement.


I’d like to give a special thanks Stephen Cognetta and the rest of the Hack Mental Health team for inspiring and supporting the creation of Rehack. You can learn more about Rehack at https://rehack.co, and if you’re interested in becoming a sponsor, thank you and please fill out this form. If you’re a Princeton student and you’re interested in joining the Rehack team, please contact us or email be directly at kjfeng@princeton.edu. Lastly, if you want to attend Rehack, be sure to sign up for updates!

Rehack

The inaugural student reverse hackathon. https://rehack.co

Kevin Feng

Written by

Product x code x design. Building @Rehack, CS @Princeton. https://kjfeng.me

Rehack

Rehack

The inaugural student reverse hackathon. https://rehack.co

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