Blame the hackers, not the Hackathon

There has been a recent spate of folks hating on Hackathons lately that seems, to me, a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  It is part of a larger movement (that I’m mainly in agreement with) to point out the ways in which tech folks these days are desperately trying to “change the world for the better” while also having billion dollar exits, but exists in its own special hate-world.

Before I try to talk about why I think some of the critiques are misguided, a few things to make clear.  For one, I actually met my current employer through a Hackathon: I worked with Bing on prototypes to help kids deal with asthma during the TEDActive conference.  And I’m currently involved in sponsoring, proposing, or running all sorts of different hacks on social problems.  So there are all sorts of biases running around here to be aware of.

As a kid, my father had a knack for explaining things in way that I could grasp.  Take guns: why rifles but not handguns?  Because rifles (of the non-automatic variety) have a purpose, they are a tool.  Whether it is helping to put down an injured animal or hunting for food (yes, lots of people still hunt for food in this country), there is a reason to have a .22 locked away and to know how to safely and correctly use one, in the same way a tablesaw is worth spending some time with.  But handguns have no purpose other than hunting human beings: if they are a tool, they are a tool for only those whose job it is to kill people, which is almost certainly not anyone reading this blog.

So let’s apply that same reasoning to Hackathons.  If they are a tool, what is their purpose?  I’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about that question, because I’ve spent a decent amount of time trying to run better Hackathons, and knowing what it is that you’re trying to do is half the battle.  To me, a Hackathon is useful for creating multiple solutions to a single problem, as a way of creatively prototyping potential answers that others can use.  Done well, it should know in advance the specific behaviors it wants to encourage, it should bring all the tools (or at least as many as you can reasonably anticipate) to the table,

Another way to think about this is the variety of ways in which a Hackathon can go wrong.  Like when it becomes an app competition; you shouldn’t be hacking on something to which you already think you know the answer and have built it.  Or when you go in with the expectation that you’ll get fully-formed products; it takes more than 48 hours to truly think something all the way through and then thoughtfully execute a solution.  Or when you go in thinking you’ll arrive at the best answer; the very best solution for something will rarely emerge from a bunch of amateurs taking a weekend stab at it.

Part of this anti-Hackathon mentality actually seems to be about the Valley’s sense of entitlement and using social good to whitewash profit motive.  That’s a fine conversation to be having, but it is a little like trying to use emotional arguments to discern between rifles and handguns.  You’ll notice when my father talked about guns, he didn’t say anything about “to make you feel safe in the world”.  A gun shouldn’t exist to make you feel a certain way and in the same way, Hackathons shouldn’t exist so that you can feel like you’re contributing.  But if used properly, a rifle can make you feel safe, because you actually are safer: able to provide for your family, able to protect animals for painful deaths, etc.  And a good Hackathon can make you feel like you are contributing because you actually are.

Put more broadly, we should never try to argue against a thing by citing only its misapplications.  If we did that, most STEM subjects would be out the window: the amount of times people use stats to bad ends is astonishing.  Hence the current “Big Data is not Truth” bandwagon, which hopes to have people use Big Data responsibly,  but will almost certainly result in some people abandoning it entirely.

1 reply
  1. Sameer Bhangar
    Sameer Bhangar says:

    Great post Matt. As someone who gets to participate in your adventures, glad to be on the journey with you.
    Using the gun example is such a great one. It’s so easy to fall into this trap of labeling things and then assign judgment based on the label. Such as “Matt is talking about guns being good, I am an anti-gun person. This is nonsense. Matt is a weird.” Or – “Matt says guns are good, I love guns as well. Yeah Matt, welcome to my club”. My read is that what you’re really talking about is developing nuance, clarity and depth of thought. Which takes time and mental, emotional (and sometimes spiritual :)) energy. But upside a more productive discourse with potential for real curiosity to get to a place of clearer understanding. How’s that for being abstract :).
    Another interesting point you raise is that – where you start from matters. If the hackathon is “who can build the best app” the risk is you get a bunch of random apps trying to compete for some superficial benefit, I see that happen.
    The flip side is that you go in with too narrow a focus and don’t have enough room for disruptive ideas. How do you think about this balance?

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