LA Hacks: Too Big to (Not) Fail?

This post is best enjoyed while listening to the LA Hacks OST (feat. LA Hacks) by LA Hacks

I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect much out of LA Hacks. The period leading up to the event made it seem like it was floating on a bubble of pure hype, a bubble that would be sure to burst, much like the Bitcoin one.

I was wrong.

That is, of course, not to say the event was perfect—far from it. But it was probably as good as it could have been.

 Economies of #webscale

LA Hacks had been held before, but with far fewer attendees than the over 1000 people who showed up at Pauley Pavilion over the weekend. And regrettably, it failed to scale. A bit ironic for an event so focused on startups and the like.

As any seasoned hackathon attendee will tell you, internet is a huge issue at hackathons. So too was it for LA Hacks. Turns out, a bunch of computer science nerds gathering in one room are going to want internet for not just their laptops, but also phones, tablets, etc.

LA Hacks stands on the shoulders (or so they claim) of giants in the business: MHacks, PennApps, etc. The main issue plaguing any of these massive hackathons? Internet. The organizers were certainly aware of the potential issue beforehand, and yet internet dropped for hours at a time during the event, generating murmurs of negative sentiment among the hackers. The password (ThankYouQuixey) was uttered sarcastically rather than earnestly.

Well, it wouldn’t be a real hackathon unless no one had internet, right?

It’s not even that they didn’t have the money to provide a better infrastructure; they just chose to spend it by throwing ethernet cables and switches at the problem. Quite literally, too—at one point volunteers were tossing the cables into the clamoring masses of disgruntled, disconnected hackers.

Needless to say, that solution was tenuous at best. And terrible at worst.

They eventually “fixed” the problem by removing the WPA security from the network. Certainly not the best solution, but you take what you can get.

But of course it wasn’t just the internet. Registration was a fiasco, too, what with the printer breaking from printing all the waiver forms. They shepherded over a thousand people through a single door in Pauley Pavilion, which is practically made of doors.

I understand parallelizing is hard and you can lose track of your threads, but really?

 Getting a head start…up

Startups. If nothing else, the vibe at LA Hacks was buzzing with the idea (in addition to several other buzzwords). All perspectives were represented, with the most notable contrast during the closing ceremony, in which a Quixey representative and Sam Altman of Y Combinator gave talks with completely contradictory viewpoints on the matter. I think the event was streamed and exists somewhere on the internet, which (unless you’re at a hackathon) you should be able to find easily!

That said, it should be noted that Quixey was the main sponsor of the event, and it showed. The (flawed) assumption that the Ultimate Goal of all hackers is to join or create a startup was prevalent throughout.

Why go to school? It’s a fool’s goal! Make a startup instead!

My own opinions on the matter are neither here nor there (I find the idea of a startup glamorous but I still want to finish my education first), but this kind of attitude is in and of itself flawed, especially at a hackathon. People don’t want to make a company out of the shitty, barely working code they hacked together in 36 hours. They just want to demo, win, and walk home with that satisfaction. And maybe with their wallets a couple thousand dollars heavier.

Startups are something people pursue on their own if they have the interest. Forcing this mentality on people is…disagreeable.

 The hacker-last approach

Recently, there has been a trend in web design: the “mobile-first” approach. The idea is simple: design your website around a mobile interface and the desktop interface will come naturally. Over time, people have expanded this concept to other situations, prioritizing the more important component in such a way that the less important ones would follow.

LA Hacks follows what I like to call the “hacker-last” approach.

This is the idea that if you host an event with hundreds of sponsors and API prizes and the like, the hackers will come naturally. And to be fair, this approach is perfectly natural—after all, aren’t the sponsors the ones who made the event possible?

The unnecessarily long opening and closing ceremonies were testaments to that. Which, of course, at least distracted the users from the whole “no internet” thing. Though I should have expected that, given that a lot of these people were behind Hacktech.

Well, I guess it depends on the sponsors. I know at least one sponsor was a bit disgruntled with the experience (and advice being pushed out to these people).

This shows with situations like the internet issue as well. Instead of prioritizing things like thanking a sponsor with the wifi password, maybe some of that time could be better spent making the wifi actually work well?

I won’t purport to know anything about hosting an event. Indeed, I don’t; I’ve never done it before!

The food was average (being generous here), but at least the snacks were good. I broke my diet several times over the course of the event. So they do care somewhat, probably. Maybe!

 Eyes on the prize

Like any “good” hackathon, LA Hacks had a wealth of prizes from the various sponsors to hand out. As one might expect, this led to people deciding what to make based off which prize they wanted, rather than…what they wanted to make.

I’ve been there, of course. Finding that creative spark is hard, and sometimes it’s easier to just focus on the prize and let that lead the way. But when that happens, are people really going to the event for fun anymore? Or are they going to win?

Perhaps the bigger prize is the prospect of a job/internship. Every sponsor talk had the words “we’re hiring” somewhere in there. Are we at the point where people treat hackathons as career fairs? I certainly hope not.

For what it’s worth, the people in line next to me were certainly picking out their prize priority list before even deciding what to hack on. That there is the commercialization of hackathons.

 Shipping and handling

In the end, the businesspeople who organized LA Hacks and the hackers themselves can agree: it’s all about shipping the product. The same message that adorns the walls of Facebook headquarters, the same message printed onto black-and-white stickers affixed to laptops all around the venue: ship, ship, ship.

I’m pleased to say many of the shipped products at LA Hacks were fantastic and (dare I say) better than the demos at PennApps. Off the top of my head, I recall a hack called Chainmail that took the concept behind FireChat to create a networkless peer-to-peer network of mobile devices that passed along messages until it reached one with internet connection to send email.

Many hacks already had real-world implementations (if I recall correctly one team basically recreated torrents), but the fact that they were able to make it at all in the 36 hours was impressive in and of itself.

Suffice to say the aforementioned problems had minimal impact on the quality of the shipped products. And that’s not even counting the lovely hardware hacks, which I’ve always found fascinating—after all, they’re quite outside my field of knowledge.

The choice of winners though? Wingman alone should be enough to tell you that that…was less than satisfactory.

 So what next?

As I said, LA Hacks was as good as it could have been. I couldn’t change the mentalities of the organizers, nor the fact that they were part of SEP, nor even the fact that their website prioritized donating Bitcoins over providing any useful information. The fact of the matter is a lot of the time, it’s easier to ignore a problem than it is to deal with it.

But what is there to do? What can you do once even after being presented with this fantastic article, the organizers say they agree with the points and then proceed to…not agree with them? What can you do about a fundamentally flawed understanding of what hackathons are for?

Nothing, it seems. And maybe it isn’t necessary at all. After all, the event wasn’t awful! Why mess with a formula that (sort of) worked?

The LA Hacks planning team wanted the event to be big. They got it, along with all the growing pains of scaling events. But along the way, the event lost something: that inexplicable spark no large hackathon I’ve attended has ever had.

Maybe it’s needlessly romantic. Maybe it’s hopeless, after all.

It will always be hard for entrepreneur types to understand developer types, and vice versa. If nothing else, LA Hacks proved the intersect doesn’t necessarily have to be terrible.

And sometimes, that is enough.

 
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