When Moshe Tamssot walked out of a Chicago hackathon in August 2010, he had a new business and a new business partner.
Most hackathon attendees go just to have fun, of course, and that's been enough to establish hackathons as a part of tech culture. While the likes of Google and Facebook have used them to promote their APIs and entire 'ecosystems,' smaller firms are also adopting hackathons -- and swear by the results.
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Hackathons, of course, are organized marathon hacking sessions with rules, goals and prizes. Conceptually, they are reminiscent of county fairs, except what's submitted to the judges was created during the event. Hackathon organizers could be hoping to get developers to play with a new interface they are introducing, or write apps for a new phone they are producing -- or the idea might be to just have fun, with no particular agenda.
Sponsors are typically corporations, user groups or student organizations. Prizes are often awarded for best design or best use of technology. The word "hackathon" can be traced to 1999, but sources agree that the practice itself goes back at least another decade.
Hackathons can be divided into two main types: live (where participants come together at a set place for a scheduled period) and virtual (where the event is held online usually over the course of a month), says Peter Morano, who has produced about two dozen live hackathons in the Chicago area over the past three years. By day he is the director of technology at TrainSignal Inc., an IT training firm.
Hackathons for fun and profit
Experts' tips for how to get started:
- Decide what purpose the hackathon will serve: To develop working prototypes of potential new products, or to serve as encouragement to help employees bond and bring ideas to the forefront, for instance.
- Decide who will participate -- employees only, or local indie programmers, or both.
- If external developers are involved, give some thought to intellectual property issues -- who owns the resulting code.
- Figure out the duration of your hackathon, from a day to a week.
- Recruit judges who are well-known and respected in the local tech community.
- Make sure the rules and judging guidelines are clear -- what the categories are, for instance.
- Make sure to offer prizes and have plenty of food.
- Acknowledge all the participants and the winners, on your corporate intranet, say, or in the employee newsletter.
Morano, however, discounts virtual hackathons, complaining that they don't generate any excitement or sense of community.
Hackathons otherwise can also be divided into internal and public types. Internal hackathons involve only employees of a particular enterprise, while public hackathons are open to all comers.
Internal hackathons, explains Morano, are intended to encourage members of the rank-and-file to bring their ideas to the forefront. "The people standing at the whiteboard coming up with the ideas are not necessarily the people with the best ideas, and they want to hear from those who would not normally be heard from," he says.