Hackathons are somewhat informal gatherings of developers in a joined effort to produce quality results on a subject (if there is one). Their endeavors are mainly related to programming languages, improvement and management of operating system and creating original and awesome applications of all sorts while simultaneously interacting with peers and investors, broadening their network of associates which often results in startup formation or employment relation establishment.

Guide to Hackathon – What, Why, How and Examples

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In this article, we will present a general overview of the evolution of hackathons, their structure, and types. Moreover, we will discuss in which ways can hackathons be beneficial to entrepreneurs and guide you through a step-by-step guide to an organization of such events. Lastly, we will note some successful businesses that originated on hackathons. This will be done through sections 1) origins, 2) form and ambiance, 3) types of hackathons, 4) projects at hackathons, 5) hackathons for entrepreneurs and 6) successful ideas and projects which were formed at hackathons.

ORIGINS OF HACKATHON

The term ‘hackathon’ is a so-called blend word consisting of words ‘hack’ and ‘marathon’. The ‘hack’ part refers to its slang meaning of program alteration but not to the illegal act of ‘hacking’. The ‘marathon’ part refers to the duration of the gatherings. Moreover, hackathons are also called hack days, hack fests or code fests. Although the term was first used in 1999, the origins of gatherings focused on creating something new in the niche that is hosting them dates back to the 1970s programming groups. In this section, we will follow the timeline from that point in history in an effort to understand how and why hackathons came to be what they are now.

1970s Hobbyist Societies

In 1975, an informal hobbyist society was formed – the Homebrew computer club. Objectives of their gatherings were to exchange technological knowledge and ideas, as well as collaborations on projects. Apple was, among other successful tech companies, founded in the Homebrew computer club. By the end of the 1970s, many such groups had been established across the United States.

However, the instability in the programming industry – radical differentiation between over five of available operating systems – caused the disappearance of this kind of gatherings. Once IBM OS and Macintosh were the only two prevalent platforms from which the developers could choose in the late 1990s, the gatherings re-emerged, now in the form of hackathons.

Formation of Hackathons

The first gathering of tech developers that was titled as a hackathon was the OpenBSD event in June 1999, in Calgary. It was an informal hackathon attended by ten people who took a weekend to work on some cryptographic programming. Only a week later, during a JavaOne conference, SUN’s marketing team challenged the attending programmers to write a script in Java, which would enable infrared communication between Palm V users and register it online. The competition was nicknamed ‘the Hackathon’ and was the first competitive gathering of the sort. However, neither of these were organized in relation to startups (OpenBSD organized an open source project, and SUN was a well-developed company).

Super Happy Dev House organized hackathons in 2005 as a way of differentiating from the business orientation of the Silicon Valley. Their objective was to focus on actual programming and technological advancements. As such, they were launching a sort of an anti-startup campaign with the use of hackathons.

Soon the Facebook team decided to follow the Super Happy Dev House example and started to form their informal gatherings. However, it was somewhat paradoxical at the time because they were a startup company using an anti-startup model for their business.

In 2006 Yahoo team, organized the Hack Day with the intention of opening the circle of developers to members of a wider community – not only corporate programmers.

A year later, the Startup Weekend marked the beginning of combining technological innovation with establishing new businesses. In the following years, hackathons spread to other niches (for example, music, gaming, education, health in combination with programming) and groups (students become a massive targeted group).

Moreover, it has been proved that ideas that spur from hackathons, even if they are not noticed at the time of the creation, can be developed into a success story. For example, the developers of GroopLy did not win the TechCrust Disrupt Hackathon. However, they continued to work on their idea and eventually sold the GroopMe app to Skype for (allegedly) more than 80 million dollars!

Today, hackathons range from one hundred to more than one thousand attendees collaboratively brainstorming and developing ideas in a wide range of niches. They serve as a business platform for new software variations as well as the ground point for future employment and startup formation.

For a structured and insightful historical overview of the development of hackathons check out Jon Gottfried’s lecture for the 2014 Hackcon.

 

FORM & AMBIANCE OF HACKATHONS

Hackathons begin with presentations about the event and the specific assignment if there is one. The assignments are mostly related to software development through focus on programming languages, operating systems, applications, or API’s (application programming interface) and, in a somewhat lesser amount, hardware development. Hackathons mostly use and develop open source software code that means that the code is available to the public for usage and alteration.

Further on, attendees suggest ideas and form groups based on thematic and/or ability preferences. Formed groups proceed to develop their ideas over the course of 24 hours or more (up to a week).

Once the groups have finished their work, they demonstrate results and, if the hackathon was of a competitive type, are evaluated by judges formed from peers, sponsors, and organizers. Winning teams receive prizes of all sorts – from cows to 250 thousand dollars.

The ambiance is often informal: food comprises out of pizzas and snacks, energy drinks and coffee stream in abundance, and the participants bring their accommodation – sleeping bags. General spirit (even if it is a competition) is comprised of appreciation of other people’s ideas and an effort to contribute as best as one can to the project. The attitude is positive and affirmative. As many hackathons are student-oriented, it is clear that the atmosphere is playful (as proven with the cow-prize). Corporative hackathons are somewhat more professional but not rigid in form.

TYPES OF HACKATHONS

The objectives and themes of hackathons vary immensely. Some hackathons target different groups while other target different subjects. From students to corporate employees through programming language and operating system types to specific niches, purposes and products, hackathons are spreading in width and depth nowadays. Here we will present some general types of hackathon organization.

Niche

Many hackathons are organized as a platform for development of application types such as mobile applications, operating system variations as well as web and video game upgrading. These gatherings are usually niche-oriented. For example, Music Hack Day focuses on software and hardware developments in collaboration with music enthusiasts while Science Hack Day is oriented towards different science-related applications. These kinds of hackathons are extremely popular worldwide and attract massive amounts of media attention – and sponsors.

Language and/or Framework

Some hackathons are organized for development of applications in a specified programming language or framework such as JavaScript or HTML5 while others differ according to usage of particular API’s. Application programming interface (API’s) is a software component that consists out of specific tools, routines, and protocols for building applications. For example, individual hackathons are held by Yahoo, Google, and Lonely Planet according to their corporative API’s.

Single Application

The so-called ‘sprints’ are gatherings organized in order to improve or upgrade a specific language, operating or management system by the principle of open source programming and are rarely competitive. Some of the renowned hackathons of the sort are the annual OpenBSD since 1999 and MediaWiki.

Corporate

Corporate hackathons are internal gatherings of employees of individual companies such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. They are organized to promote or develop new products. One of the most notable results from an internal hackathon is the Facebook’s Like button.

Demographic and Level of Expertise

Hackathons can be held for a specific demographic group such as teenagers, students or women. Many technology universities (UCLA, Princeton, Yale and many others) hold hackathons for members of their community as well as students from other universities. These are usually competitive in type with awards in the form of sponsorship (from HackTX, PennApps, HackMIT and others).

Some hackathons are oriented toward specific expertise levels of the programmers – most notably CodeDay across the United States. The objective is to advance the knowledge of iOS programming and web development through diverse workshops.

Altruistic

A variety of gatherings of programmers has been organized in an effort to promote acts of altruism. These hackathons have dealt with issues of politics, transit systems, local economies, education, disasters and crisis as well as psychological health (for example, DementiaHack was focused on improvement of lives of people suffering from dementia). Moreover, several hackathons were held as homage to Aaron Swartz – the late computer programmer and internet activist.

PROJECTS AT HACKATHONS

In addition to the variety that emerges in the matters of hackathon organization, there is a multitude of approaches that participants take. In this section, we will introduce most common types of projects which can be encountered at hackathons.

Upgrade of the Existing

These projects utilize existing open source software data and incorporate new elements. These elements are either original or taken from a different application and used in a distinctive and unique combination. The objective is to research possibilities and full potential of the algorithms and libraries that have already been used in some way. For example, a programmer decides to add new features to an application or uses a different programming language so as to improve the appearance of a web page.

Fusions

Fusion projects combine different services in order to improve the utility of both of them. For example, taking the infrastructure of a social network and combining it with a file hosting service in order to have a simplified and more efficient information transfer (BoxMe is such a combination of Facebook and SkyDrive).

All New – Complex Mode

Some participants and groups try to build something completely new (framework, libraries or languages). The technological and imaginational complexity of this kind of undertaking often makes the end results seem unfinished (and sometimes they are). However, the previously mentioned GroopMe project proves that such projects can become extremely profitable products later on.

All New – Simple Mode

On the other hand, some new applications can be unchallenging in the matters of programming but have been polished to the maximum. These applications are visibly completely finished; attention to detail has been made, and the product is ready for use.

HACKATHON FOR ENTREPRENEURS

After having introduced basic notions about what hackathons are and how they function, we would like to address their principles in the sphere of entrepreneurial endeavors. As an entrepreneur, you can find a constellation of opportunities arising from hackathons. Whether you want to host one for your business, become a sponsor, find employees or business partners, new projects you want to invest in or present, define in detail and polish some of your ideas – hackathons are excellent platforms for all of these. In this section, we will browse through all of the stated and provide some additional guidelines that can come in handy.

Why and How to Run a Hackathon

Regardless of the niche to which your business (or the business you are planning on opening) belongs, hackathons can be an excellent choice for the idea proliferation and project realization. More importantly, the marketing domains that are essential for success seek innovative ways of presenting products and/or services. Hackathons, as they are a nucleus of creativity and expertise in technology, can be the wind to the sails of your business.

Primarily, you can always organize hackathon-type gatherings among your circle of employees and associates. These do not have to be dependent on technology. The principles that you should implement are collaboration, positive attitude and psychologically incentive surrounding. The gatherings should be informal brainstorming on anything work-related: from ideas for new products and services to projects on workplace design or improvement of staff relations. The following step (explained below) would be the realization of projects that have been assessed as worthy of pursuit. Such events can do much for continuous productivity of your business.

On the other hand, proper hackathons can, as we stated above, be a determinative factor for distinction of your products and services among similar ones on the market.

For example, you own a fish restaurant. You have made a great menu with fresh and quality groceries; your cook is sublime, and the décor is wonderful. However, the competition is hard. Organizing a hackathon can be an excellent solution to your problem. How? If a product or a service is good, the reason it is not reaching its full potential should always be looked for in its marketing strategies. By gathering some of the local programmers for 24-hour collaboration in ways your fish restaurant can improve its marketing position might result in some downright results. Maybe they will update your social networking accounts, make a more interactive website or develop a mobile application that will provide menus and interesting facts about your type of cuisine. Perhaps they will include a simple multiplayer game that will bring the top players discount on a meal every month.

Interaction with your customers is extremely important regardless of the type of business you are managing. Organizing a hackathon can provide you the means to achieve your goals. Their scale should be adjusted according to your needs and possibilities. Due to the fact that hackathons have their form, here is the guide that you should follow if you engage in such an undertaking.

Step by Step Guide Towards a Successful Hackathon

Step 1: Define the target group of hackathon

Firstly, you must have a goal in mind – an objective you are trying to reach with the organization of a hackathon. Is it a purely marketing oriented development you are trying to achieve or are you interested in more complex technological solutions? According to answers to these questions, you should at least roughly form the type of your project. The type of your project should influence the demographic of developers, as well as their expertise overall, or in certain areas (whether they are programming languages, operating systems or something else).

Step 2: Arrange location, sponsors, promote your hackathon

You should arrange a venue of appropriate size for your event. There should be enough room for all attendees and their equipment. Provide Wi-Fi connection, sleeping areas (sleeping bags are the usual sleeping arrangement), food and drinks (snacks, pizza, coffee, energy drinks).

Contact sponsors for your event – if sponsors attend your hackathon, more skilled participants will come. You can explain what goals you have and what industry do you represent as well as offer including some of their features as a part of the project of the hackathon.

Create a web page with information about your hackathon and enlist it on some of the pages that provide calendars of upcoming hackathons.

Moreover, promote your event in social networks and other forms of media. Make flyers and posters of your event with a description of the target groups of developers and a general overview of the approach your hackathon will be taking.

Step 3: Set your rules for the hackathon event

When the day of the event comes, make sure to make a presentation about the objective of the gathering. Provide guidelines on what you are hoping to see the end results and take note of the suggestions which are being made.

Step 4: Ensure fluidness of the event

Make sure connection and collaboration are at their highest level. Get to know your sponsors and your hackers. Introduce them to one another. As the fluidness of communication increases so will the quality and quantity of ideas and results. Enjoy the event and balance a positive and productive atmosphere among your ‘guests’.

Step 5: Award the best project and the best team in the hackathon

It would be advisable to provide a sort of a reward for the best project and team of your event. It does not have to be something big or even financial. At least make a symbolic gesture in order to show your attendees appreciation and recognition. You should form a judging body of people who you believe can make the right decision (peers can also be judges).

Connect, Collaborate, Construct

Even if you are not ready or willing to host your hackathon, you can always participate in one – as a sponsor or an investor (and of course as a participant). The time spent with different, intelligent and creative people will become a part of your networking process and having a wide specter of potential associates or partners is crucial for every entrepreneur. You might get an idea for a new product or improvement of an old one. Maybe you will decide to build a startup. In every case, you will be a part of a distinctive creative process and form relations with awesome people.

SUCCESSFUL IDEAS AND PROJECTS THAT WERE FORMED AT HACKATHONS

Hackathons are a fruitful platform for launching new advancements in programming technologies and awesome projects as well. Most entrepreneurs who participate in these events claim that all of their ideas and projects from hackathons find way to incorporate themselves into their business over time.

The most notable example of an extremely successful hackathon project is the previously mentioned GroupMe, which is a messaging application. Started off as GroopLy, the project was not even noticed on the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon. However, the team of developers continued to work on their project and ended up being purchased by Skype.

Similar happened to the Flutter application for gesture recognition that was purchased by Google.

After winning a hackathon, the Doracy application became a startup enterprise serving as a repository for legal documents and online negotiation and affirmation of contracts.

Moreover, the Zaarly application that was introduced on a hackathon has also become a startup providing information on local enterprises and services one might find interest in or use of.

There are plenty of other enterprises that spurred from hackathons and grew into successful businesses and they gravitate around various niche, products and services (travelling, socializing, health, education, science, arts and so on).

The important thing to bear in mind is that hackathons are stacked with creativity and thus embody the excellent ideas as well as bad ideas. Nevertheless, due to the constant flux of opinions, innovation and the collaboration of different people from peers to experts in the field you are interested in, you can enhance your creativity over time and alter the bad ideas into something exquisite.

CONCLUSION

We followed the journey of hackathons from computer clubs in 1970s to the MegaHackathons that host one thousand developers for almost a week. What is always in focus with these kids of gatherings is the ‘back to the roots attitude’. This means the main objective is to create. Sponsorships, investments, startups, and awards have a big significance for hackathons nowadays, but it is clear that a prevailing number of developers still have that spark of passion for what they are doing. This spark is best lit among peers, and this is why hackathons boost exhilaration from all who participate. All things considered, hackathons bring forward a multitude of innovative ideas and projects in various industries and services. Moreover, the projects are often a combination of diverse factors that enable the development on both sides. As an entrepreneur (especially if you are in the computing or marketing niche, but not exclusively) you can open your views, refine ad properly structure your projects and ideas as well as make solid connections for you business by participating or hosting a hackathon.

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Hi,

great article. I have one question: which platforms with online code events do you mostly recommend?