On hackathons

Y-Hack, Credit: @brucesebi

My first hackathon was Mozilla’s World Series of Hack, held in the Computer History Museum. Sponsored by many of the big Silicon Valley technology firms, it was a sleepness night of hacking away at what would become the internet as we know it now. Real-time websockets, ubiquitous in 2013, were just another experimental piece of cool technology in 2011. It’s amazing how far we (and the internet) have come in the past couple years, and this rapid development shows no sign of slowing down.

In 2013, though, hackathons have taken on a bit of a different focus: with the rise of “student hackathons” and “Major League Hacking”, including MHacks, PennApps, HackNY, HackMIT, Y-Hack, HackPrinceton, and the like, hackathons have moved from a place to experiment with new technology and build cool things to a night-long competition for judges’ approval. Ad-hoc groups formed the night of are now rare, and the value of the prizes has gone from a fun gadget to a hefty sum of money (Y-Hack offered $10,000 to its first place winner).

This is largely because the set of people who go to hackathons tend to be a competitive bunch — and that in itself is not a bad thing! Certainly given the demand for competent software developers across the board, it makes sense to differentiate those who are just a cut above the rest. And tech isn’t the only industry to do this — MIT holds a trading competition for the finance world that serves much the same purpose.

Still, I think it would be good to have some aspects of the old hackathon culture today: not just the trendiest, newest technologies, but some stuff that’s purely experimental, with teams that don’t know each other and aren’t prepared.

So, instead of a $10,000 prize, how about 10 $1,000 prizes? That’s still a solid 10 times HackNY in prize money, but allows more people to be awarded for the stuff they’ve done.

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