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Ask Slashdot: What Makes a Great Hackathon? 79

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the free-pizza dept.
beaverdownunder writes "I recently attended a 'hackathon' that was really just another pitching contest, and out of frustration am tempted to organize an event myself that is better suited to developers and far less entrepreneur-centric than some of the latest offerings. What I'd like to know from the /. community is, what would you like to see in a hackathon? What are some good hackathons you've attended that weren't just thinly-veiled pitch-development workshops? I have an idea around assigning attendees to quasi-random teams based on their skill sets, then giving them 48 hours to complete a serious coding / engineering challenge (probably in the not-for-profit space) — but maybe you've got some better ideas?"
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Ask Slashdot: What Makes a Great Hackathon?

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  • Machetes (Score:5, Funny)

    by AioKits (1235070) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @11:12AM (#43794267)
    Some of those, maybe a chainsaw or two. Hatchet if you're feeling adventurous.
  • Pitch contest? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by FilmedInNoir (1392323) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @11:13AM (#43794271)
    So, they get a bunch of young smart people in a room with some smarmy guy and maybe bimbos? maybe energy drinks?
    Then they just ask "Hey, give us some ideas so we can become rich!" Then the smartest idea guy, gets like a t-shirt and maybe like an X-box or something?
    Cause if so, that's the most brilliantly evil thing I've ever heard.
    • by godrik (1287354) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @12:00PM (#43794719)

      "So, they get a bunch of young smart people in a room with some smarmy guy and maybe bimbos? maybe energy drinks?
      Then they just ask "Hey, give us some ideas so we can become rich!" Then the smartest idea guy, gets like a t-shirt and maybe like an X-box or something?"

      You know you are on slashdot, when you put bimbos in the room and the best reward you can think of are t-shirts and X-boxes...

    • I have an idea around assigning attendees to quasi-random teams based on their skill sets, then giving them 48 hours to complete a serious coding / engineering challenge (probably in the not-for-profit space) — but maybe you've got some better ideas?

      Whatever you do. Do not assign teams! Let team members select each other.

      Let me decide who my partners are going to be. You certainly don't know me, you probably don't know which skillset I lack and which I have (even if you ask me in the most general terms), and you probably don't know how to screen potential partners like I do. Assigning team members would probably work in a classroom environment, where your students are a captive audience, and need your class to graduate, but assigning team members in a

  • by i.r.id10t (595143) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @11:13AM (#43794275)

    Grab one of the open source LMS packages - Moodle, Sakai, Canvas - and check their feature request lists, and implement a feature or three.

    Form your teams, have them elect a "project manager", etc. Structured just like a "Real Job" but with a short deadline.

    • A brilliant idea. Gotta make sure though that it's laid out enough beforehand that it doesn't end up being nothing but planning stages and no actual results by the end. Like any such event, preplanning is key. Involve the participants in the planning of course, but the event should be about getting those plans accomplished.

      • by neurovish (315867) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @11:46AM (#43794629)

        A brilliant idea. Gotta make sure though that it's laid out enough beforehand that it doesn't end up being nothing but planning stages and no actual results by the end. Like any such event, preplanning is key. Involve the participants in the planning of course, but the event should be about getting those plans accomplished.

        In order to be like a "Real Job", then it needs to be done with no planning and result in wasted effort with no results.

        • You're focusing on the least important bit of the suggestion. I'm more interested in "real project" than specifically "real job".

        • by ttucker (2884057)

          In order to be like a "Real Job", then it needs to be done with no planning and result in wasted effort with no results.

          So real jobs are exactly like a CS programming class?

  • by Phoenix666 (184391) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @11:15AM (#43794295)

    I've been participating in the NYC BigApps string of hackathons this Spring. They really shouldn't be called "hackathons" because, as the submitter said, they're really just pitch-a-thons. Three weeks ago we showed up to the first, came up with an idea on the fly, banged it out in two days; then, when it came time to present the app we had done every other team stood up and presented apps they had been working on for years.

    Naturally, something that has been in development for years is going to be more complete and polished than something that was born 48 hours before. And that long-term project is more likely to win, and win they did. In the subsequent two hackathons we also presented stuff we had been developing for a long time and won both times. But it felt wrong. It felt like it was violating the spirit of what a hackathon should be.

    What hackathons should be is a crazy all-night code fest of how quickly techs can move ideas from conception to reality. 48 hours is an absurdly short period of time to create. All of us who develop for a living know that. But that intensifies the design/scope decisions you have to make, the team collaboration you have to effect on the fly, and the exhiliration of a win if you can pull something off.

    Finally, the panel of judges should be diverse, cutting across generations and disciplines, because young 20-something techs are perhaps not always the best positioned to see the potential of an app in the bigger societal context.

    • by Bazman (4849)

      I went to a hackathon and found the idea of judging and prizes pretty pointless. Took up an hour of valuable hack time. I skipped all that nonsense and went for a walk and got some fresh air for the first time in two days instead.

    • Very valid points. Maybe a hackathon should be only organized around new technology releases. I went to a 'hackathon' at Adobe years ago, which was an invitation only prerelease of actionscript 3. The new features were put to use, which made all of the finished projects unique and interesting.
    • If the participants are working on their own ideas, it's not a proper Hackathon (IMNSHO).

      Check out how they do the 48 Hour Film Project:
      http://www.48hourfilm.com/en/about/history.php [48hourfilm.com]

      Teams are given a character, a prop, a line of dialog and a genre. And these are handed out minutes before the 48-hour clock starts. You don't work on a mystery for months, because you might show up and get SciFi as your genre.

      Corresponding details for a hackathon would be inputs, outputs, GUI or console, mobile or desktop, an

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      Well, giving prizes for these sounded like a very bad idea from the beginning. Don't offer prizes and mak participants pay. Only the very crazy will come and magic will happen.
  • by Murdoch5 (1563847) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @11:16AM (#43794309)
    Make each team produce a working robot by the end of a 48 hour period. Give them access to a uC, the required hardware and then set requirements. For instance, program the robotic arm to interface with the team, or program a robotic platform to drive around the floor intelligently and autonomously. I think it would be seriously interesting and it would weed out the wanta-ba programmers from the serious ones. Anyone can write code for the desktop but only a programmer can write embedded code which works.
    • by a1cypher (619776)

      As someone who enjoys tinkering with the hardware, it would be even cooler to have one team develop the robot hardware and the other develop the software. The software should be designed such that it can easily be ported to a new robot platform using the same inputs/outputs.

    • Re:Robots (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Cenan (1892902) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @12:00PM (#43794717)

      More generic, you could spend a bit of time and ask small business owners or non profit groups in the local community if they have any special/quirky needs that normal software won't satisfy, and make that the mission for the hackathon. The point being that you don't announce the challenge ahead of time and you don't present a challenge that some or most will have met before.

      Then they will all come unprepared and you can have fun and help someone who might not be able to afford it at the same time.

      • you can have fun and help someone who might not be able to afford it at the same time.

        That's an interesting idea, but I can imagine many situations in which buggy code hacked together over 48 hours would be detrimental to the operations of a small business or non-profit.

        • by Cenan (1892902)

          Of course, you fit the problem to the deadline. The point was also more like --- if they always show up prepared, give them something they can't prepare for. And I threw in an example. I believe Google does this kind of thing actually: Random hacks of kindness, although I'm not sure how much time each team prepares for it.

    • by dkf (304284)

      Make each team produce a working robot by the end of a 48 hour period.

      As long as you accept that some people are going to say "fuck that shit" and do something else. If you've got a bunch of very bright people, they might decide that there is a better priority thing to work on together than any goal you might try to impose. If they do this, you've won as cool and/or necessary stuff will be done. They're probably right about the prioritization, especially if multiple people agree on it, and you've got no chance of changing their mind by waving prizes about or shouting at them

  • I think the problem is that a bunch of people coding their own projects for this kind of event is like everyone sitting in a room reading different books. Figure out something a large number of coders will find interesting and make a project of it. Otherwise it turns out like the NaNoWriMo crowd, where people sit around and do a lot of writing but it has nothing to do with anyone else and they may as well have holed up in their room and done it alone.

    • Yep, you need a bit of friendly competition, like the "scrap yard challenge" type shows, build something that can perform loosely related tasks A, B, C,... Thing is you only reveal the tasks one at a time, (like real life scope creep). Of course hookers and blackjack would certainly help if the budget stretches that far.
      • The great thing about such a project is they can do it any language they please, and I think comparison between different languages' solutions would be an interesting part of it.

  • Pair up programmers ala Agile/Extreme programming, but make sure that one person in each of the pairs is a booth babe.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      You may be confusing a Hackathon with a Fuckathon.

  • by shentino (1139071)

    Not having the word "hackathon" censored.

  • I've organized and participated in many many hackathons. I enjoy all types. But, I too am getting tired of the pitch contests for crappy apps that will never become a business. I was thinking of organizing a hackers hackathon. No entrepreneurship, just make something cool/useful. I think you can succeed with your mission if you just explain what the event is. You're organizing an event for programmings, by programmers. Not to be rude, but those are the ladies and gentlemen that are invited to attend. I th
  • by ideonexus (1257332) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @11:34AM (#43794495) Homepage Journal

    My wife and I recently mentored at the Thomas Jefferson Hackathon [tjhackathon.com], and it was very fascinating to see so many gifted kids come up with so many wonderful technical solutions. The problem, I felt, came when it was time for all the teams to pitch their solutions. Many presentations came off as sales-pitches, which seemed to be what the judges wanted, but it left me wanting to know more about the technical details of what they were working on--not how much revenue they thought their software would generate or how large a user-base it might get in an appstore.

    Hackathons are 24-plus hours of intense, focused coding. Following up that technical focus with a sales pitch really seems like a waste and encourages the participants to work on projects that work best in a market place rather than solve interesting problems or explore interesting ideas. An exploration of the technologies used, the languages, algorithms, APIs, etc would make the presentation portion of the Hackathon more like engineers presenting their ideas to other engineers to peer-review and inspire one another. It would also encourage participants to broaden their horizons, consider data visualizations, focus on just an algorithm or family of algorithms, or explore some other aspect of computer science deeply for 24 hours, instead of trying to develop another application to solve some aspect of daily life (which is fine too in moderation).

    I don't know about everyone else, but in the real world most of my pitches are being made to other developers. Sales people pitch to the customers and clients, with project managers acting as translators between the technical and social staff. Developers don't just want to see how slick your software is, they also want to evaluate the elegance of your solution under the hood. Hackathons should focus on developer-to-developer communications when it comes time to present solutions.

  • I've found that hackathons focused on one core technology (a piece of hardware, a specific framework, a common goal, etc) are the best. They tend to segment developers based on interest (like making games? we'll make a game using this!) and it makes it harder for the bus-dev types to throw out their dead end ideas that never end up winning. I'm organizing a hackathon next month that'll largely be project based. No business guru nonsense. We want to see what you can do.
  • Don't Over-Organize! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Edward Kmett (123105) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @11:47AM (#43794637) Homepage

    I'm going to disagree with most of the replies I've seen here so far about just piling on constraints and limitations.

    When I go to a hackathon, I am looking for an open forum with interesting people to talk to and people who have their own problems to solve. I get sucked into new problems for 2-3 days and I emerge on the other side with insights into areas I wouldn't have thought of working on before.

    I'm not looking for structure from the organizer about what to work on. I and most of the people I know already have a ton of projects in the wings. I'm looking for a good collaborative space to talk to people, people who've brought interesting projects to help, and whiteboard/blackboard space to use for explaining things.

    The Haskell hackathons (Hac-Phi and Hac-Boston in particular) have generally followed this format and I love them.

    I've gone to other events where someone is trying to harness a hackathon to achieve some particular end and pass out prizes or something, and in general I've been bored out of my mind. If I want to go work with some fixed group of people on some fixed task I can do that. It is called a job.

    I'm at a hackathon to generally improve the state of things that the people around me are passionate about and to be exposed to new things.

    • I'm at a hackathon to generally improve the state of things that the people around me are passionate about and to be exposed to new things.

      That's called a convention. I think you are at the wrong event.

      • At a convention the people aren't usually sitting at their computers the whole time huddled over problems they are working on. A hackathon for me is a group setting of people working on code. A convention has them in breakout sessions talking about it, but not writing it.

  • I have participated in a few healthcare-related hackathons in the Boston area. A few things I like:
    -forming my own teams
    -access to a wide array of experts (MDs, engineers, MBAs, PhDs, etc.) who represent different parts of the problem (clinicians, marketing people, insurance industry, etc.)
    -lots of snacks and caffeine (seriously)
    -easy internet access
    -lots of power strips
    -conference rooms with TVs or projectors
    -close access to supplies for hardware hacking (materials, tools, hardware, etc.) -- my team needs

    • by cjjjer (530715)
      Sounds very similar to various "Startup" weekends that I have attended lately.
      • I guess one third to one half of the ideas that get pitched stay together for at least 4-6 weeks, refining the product/pitch or applying for local funding (e.g. accelerators, pitch contests, etc.)

        The main objectives seem to be recruiting and networking. Startups that stick are a bonus.

        That said, I think the app/software ideas get a little more done in the weekend, in the sense that meaningful hardware hacking is hard to do if it wasn't planned. Judges seem to be impressed by hardware, perhaps for that reaso

  • Oh, and computers too.
  • EcoHack has a good model that keeps it fresh -- they draw a varied audience including designers, coders, hardware hackers, community organizers, and organizations with data problems that need solving. Anyone who has an idea up front gives a 5-minute ignite style talk on Friday night to attract a team. First thing on Saturday, EcoHack organizers help ensure balanced membership on teams, and during the day also float from team to team helping with any technical issues that arise. They get results! http://ecoh [ecohacksf.org]
  • I think a lot of us hacker / maker types are not really very social folks. This sort of very public collaboration is just not our thing. The whole concept is of course going to be more appealing to the entrepreneur / salesman types and the academics who would rather talk than build. They actually like interacting with a crowd. A crowd is typically composed of a whole lot of followers and a few leaders. Those of us who wish to neither lead nor follow would rather just work in private. We will continue to sta

  • But the answer has to be - like any *athon - its about people coming together to achieve some thing great. Sorry if thats not the nerdy answer you were looking for.
  • The company I currently work for does this once a year, for all students wishing to participate. It is not a pitch at all, except for the fact that ( of course ) the coding / engineering problem is one directly related to the company's domain ( logistics, as it is ). The hackathons last for 8 hours, from 6 pm till 2 am. No recruiting done, no company pressure, just for the pleasure of solving problems. Lots of drinks and food help, as well as a quiet environment. When the hackathon is over, there is free be
  • I think there is a very good comparison to be made between Hackathons and Drum Solos. They aren't truly entertaining to most people. They only appeal to the obsessed aficionado of a very narrow field.

    I therefor recommend a secret password to the entry door that involves a random 256-bit password. Those who get in will feel even more special about attending.
  • by vkg (158234) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @01:18PM (#43795481) Homepage

    http://vinay.howtolivewiki.com/blog/other/swarm-cooperatives-more-event-details-including-speakers-3406 [howtolivewiki.com]

    "Evolution of Swarm Cooperatives" is about hackathons, unconferences, bar camps etc. - anything where you get a large, reasonably diverse group together in an informal setting to work together, solve problems or learn from each-other. Specific topics to address: more effective code reuse after hackathons, documenting unconferences, and scheduling when you have at lot of potential speakers.

    If you're in London and have an opinion, come along - we're about 1/4m from the London Hackerspace on Hackney Road.

    • by lizbarry (2620999)
      did you ever come across the predecessor to the modern "unconference" or "foo camp" -- open space technology from the 80s?
  • It just sounds like neither the process or participants are very mature.
  • 1.Have enough supply of food and drinks(non-alcoholic) to last one whole 24 hour cycle.

    2.Have a structure to it. E.g. Would start at 8 am on Saturday, finish on 8 am on Sunday, upload demos by 10 am, and do anything using X library in python.
    Then just let the participants do whatever they want, don't unnecessarily linger or ask too many questions. Remember, people are there to enjoy themselves, and code whatever they think is a good project. Don't judge.

  • SHALL WE PLAY A GAME?
    > Global Thermonuclear Wa^H^H^H Gamejam_

    Bring your favorite libraries, and placeholder assets, or even snag some free ones online. [opengameart.org]

    Hack together a fun little game in 12, 24, 36 or 48 hours. It's called a Game Jam. Games are just about the only program where you can use the entire gamut of a computer's capabilities and mathematics skills. Everything from text based adventure, to moving squares on the screen, to fully 3D flight simulators or procedural systems with learning

  • ...that nobody in the room can program the matrix in an hour

Do you suffer painful illumination? -- Isaac Newton, "Optics"

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