19 Secrets to a Kick-ass Hackathon

Hackathon - Having company employees come in and work all night under the guise of innovation and opportunity with little or no reward to oneself for the sole purpose of benefiting the company.

Hackathon - A large meeting of computer-enthusiasts held for the specific purpose of hacking a website or other technology.

Have you attended a hackathon before? Have you hosted one? Which Urban Dictionary definition describes your experience?

Per usual, we prefer Wikipedia’s definition: “A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is an event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development and hardware development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software projects.”

The truth is, how you go about hosting or attending a hackathon strongly affects what you’ll get out of it. Today, ProgrammableWeb offers you advice on how to make the most out of your next hackathon.

Hackers have ethics?

Before we get into what makes for a successful hackathon, let’s take a look back at the history of the experience to understand the principles on which it stands. The concept of hacker ethics—creating a shared set of moral values and philosophy—started to surface at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s and ‘60s, but was officially added to our nerd vocabulary by Steven Levy in 1984.

“To me, it’s part of that hacker culture to not just do the things we’ve been educated to do, but go and venture outside of that and be creative and be silly,” said Cristiano Betta at an APIcon. The truth behind hacking is playfulness and experimentation, learning that not all failure is good but failure is essential, and learning that process matters just as much as product. “We need to be able to test things and figure them out. In order to figure out how to do it wrong before we can do it right.”

Hacker, often a term with a negative connotation, actually is historically synonymous with inclusion. Here are the six most common axioms of The Hacker Code of Ethics:

1. Access to computers and everything that might teach you something about the way the world works, as well as anything that can enable you to learn, should be unlimited.

2. All information should be free. You can also call this “All information wants to be free.” Betta says this comes down to the basis of open source, quoting the Torah: The person who is righteous will say “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours.” A couple millennia later, this rings true in much of the developer community.

3. Mistrust authority. Promote decentralization. A border-less world makes the sharing of information more open and simpler. Hackers supposedly believe that any sort of bureaucracy is a hinderance to this principle, however, with modern security and privacy constantly threatened, collective standards and protocols have arisen from groups of individuals and have been accepted by the majority. Of course, Betta reminds us that, while we recognize what is, that should not determine what always should be, and a true hacker looks to question constantly.

4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking. Not by their degree, their age, their sex, their race or position. If you are running a hackathon, look for ways to eliminate exclusivity. Think about your audience and make sure that you welcome everyone and just about any idea, but try to cut out any type of sexist, bigoted or elitist work from floating up to make others feel uncomfortable. Consider adding a code of conduct, like this the official Hack Code of Conduct that aims for inclusiveness and welcomeness.

5. You can create art and beauty on computers. This comes hand-in-hand with the API-first design principle of simplicity. And of course, there is ample beauty and art in innovation.

6. Computers can change your life for the better. No explanation needed, just take a look around.

Nowadays, this open culture toward hacking has companies proudly signing onto The Hacker Pledge, to create a free-flowing set of standards that each hackathon host and each hacker should strive to uphold.

Why do people keep attending hackathons?

A couple days without sleep or showers or the comfort of home, surrounded by a bunch of other people on the same boat. Why would people attend such a thing? Why would people want to encourage such insanity by organizing one?

Tips for attending a hackathon

First, specifically, why would you want to spend two smelly days and two smelly nights? At his talk at the APIDays - APIStrat Berlin this year, Shubham Sharma, developer evangelist at Mailjet, as developer, shared why he keeps coming back to hackathons. He does it all because each hackathon empowers him to:

  • experiment with new frameworks and languages
  • have new ideas outside your day-to-day job
  • learn
  • win prizes
  • update your Github
  • network with other developers
  • have fun!

Plus, at a hackathon, there is no mañana, mañana, as we say in Spain, putting off your experiment and code play until tomorrow. At a hackathon, pressure feeds innovation and you find endless amounts of productivity and shocking energy with which to do it all.
Hackathon in action (Photo courtesy of Tony Blank)
Next, Sharma suggests a plan of action to bring with you as a hacker:

  1. Choose your team: Don’t limit yourself to your usual crew, bring outsiders in—even marketing and sales! This will build cross-team collaboration, trust and empathy, as well as boundless creativity.
  2. Set your objective and desired outcome: Make sure your goal is reasonable for a 24-48 hour time crunch and that it’s reasonable for what you and your team members bring to the table. Focus on what you want to demo and show when time has run out. If, at the start, things don’t seem to be going the right way, feel free to pivot, but halfway through the event, be hesitant to change too much.
  3. Choose your tools wisely: “In a hackathon, if you really want to win them, go for coding the least possible,” Sharma said, advising you instead to use things like APIs to glue it all together. Think about who are the sponsors of the event. They are the ones there to help you, plus they could be the judges too, who will always enjoy seeing what you can do with their tech. Continue to reuse and recycle, making sure that you are using a hosting and deployment Platform, not having to fuss with your own server. Similarly, use all the HTML and CSS frameworks and templates available to you.
  4. Code: Of course, this is what you’re there to spend hours upon hours doing, right? So make sure your environment is optimal, bringing along whatever you are most comfortable working on, including your own computer and keyboard. “Because if you’re in a bad position, you won’t be creative.” And don’t forget to eat, hydrate and stretch! And really don’t forget, as you lose your first, second, and even third winds, to use Github to control your Versioning.
  5. Demo: Go big or go home!
  6. Celebrate and pass out: You deserved it!
  7. Repeat at next hackathon! Careful, hackathons can become addictive...

Be sure to read the next Developer Relations article: Will Windows 10 Win Developers Back To Microsoft?