On the Commercialization of Hackathons

I remember my first hackathon like it was yesterday. Roughly ten people, plus organizers and mentors, crammed in a single room of UCLA’s Boelter Hall. Fueled by pizza, coffee, and In-N-Out, the two teams (there were too few people to form any more) hammered out some of the worst code that has ever had the misfortune to grace the earth.

But hey, it worked.

As time went on, the hackathons I attended grew increasingly extravagant. Sponsorship went from a few pieces of swag distributed at the event’s conclusion to all-out massive gatherings of tech companies, each trying to get hackers to use their respective APIs. So too did the names of those companies grow more prominent: Riot, Venmo, Bloomberg, Facebook.

PennApps was an incomprehensibly massive affair compared to SS12 so long ago, with more than a hundred times the number of attendees.

Hackathons grew, and so too did interest in them from the business aspect of things. After all, where else are you going to find CS majors willing to program out a proof-of-concept…for free? Larger hackathons became recruiting hotbeds, where students could go to net summer internships, or even full-time offers at major tech companies. Truly, this was the dream.

I should know, as that’s how I scored my internship at Facebook.

Objectively, these larger hackathons—Hacktech, PennApps, and the like—provide better amenities for attendees. Who can say no to free food and clothing?

Yet, somehow these larger hackathons feel defiled in a way. Something has been lost in this endless quest for employment opportunities.

What happened to hacking for the sake of hacking? When hackers made something not because it was a good startup idea, or because they could win the Mashery API prize, but rather because it was just plain cool? When they took a weekend off to work on something that wasn’t schoolwork for once, to dedicate the time to create something useful?

Hackathons are an outlet for the creative energies of these CS students, otherwise bound by the constraints of school projects—projects that are, frankly, difficult to apply to real-world situations. Hackathons provide a means for these kids to apply what they’ve learned to problems they created for themselves. And hey, if you can make a bit of money on the side or even get a job, why not?

That said, what was once a nice potential reward has become the entire purpose for the event. The end now justifies the means. As more and more people try to get a slice of the hackathon pie, the event itself begins to lose its purpose.

This is what events like MHacks and LA Hacks want to become: places to attend and meet companies, not large gatherings of nerds making whatever. They’re trying to make hackathons “cool,” and in doing so destroy what made hackathons a good concept to begin with. All I can do is scream internally, that’s not the point!

Hackathons are not career fairs.

When you see a hackathon brag about receiving a thousand likes on its Facebook page, when you see a hackathon have an almost masturbatory focus on social media optimization, something has gone terribly wrong.

After all, I went to the Facebook hackathon to make something cool, not to get hired.

If this is the direction they want to go in, so be it. I’ll continue to attend hackathons as I always have. I highly doubt any one of them can recreate the magic of the first.

At least I’ll have a lot of free stuff to show for it.

 
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