They form around roles, with a sweet spot of two or three. An example would be a designer and a developer; or a designer and two developers; or a designer, a business person with the idea, and a developer, he says. (In the last case the developer creates the software, the designer creates the interface and the non-technical person does the presentation, he notes.)
"The rule is that you need a programmer or developer, a hustler or business person who can sell, and a designer who can make things look beautiful -- because this is not the old days anymore when you could have ugly apps," Tamssot says.
When picking a team, "Focus on people, not ideas," urges Tamssot. "Find people you are compatible with and who can complement your skill sets. At a hackathon you can have real-life experience with potential partners in situations where they can't fake anything. Some members of our original team were not really committed, but it was great to separate the wheat from the chaff. There were a couple of members that I would never work with again."
"Stress reveals character, it does not create character," Tamssot adds. "A hackathon, meanwhile, breeds the culture that the last minute is the best minute, for those who love the rush of adrenaline."
While the entrants usually organize themselves, in some cases playing matchmaker for the participants is the main point of the event.
For instance, POV, the long-running PBS documentary program, holds periodic two-day hackathons to explore the ways technology can be used for storytelling. "We are giving technologists access to filmmakers, and giving those storytellers access to technologists," says Adnaan Wasey, POV's digital director. POV plays matchmaker with applicants, who might not have met prior to the event.
An example of an enterprise that has integrated hackathons into its business practices is Dropbox Inc. in San Francisco. The cloud storage and file synchronization firm has two hackathons per year, each a week long, explains software engineer Max Belanger.
"Everyone in the firm was given five full days to tackle any project they want," Belanger explains. "You can work on your own or in a team, and the only rule is that by participating you have to be willing to present your work." Since participation involves prestige that comes with recognition, employees take part willingly, he says.
The event, called Hack Week, is held in January and again during the summer. As many as 300 employees participate, and they are encouraged to commit to a project in the weeks leading up to the hackathon. If materials are needed, they are handled on a case-by-case basis through the usual corporate procurement process, he adds.
During the hackathon food is available 24 hours a day, but participants aren't expected to work through the night.
Even the CEO has been known to commit to a project, and the sales department will also participate, typically creating a sales tool, Belanger says. The Dropbox password-strength meter and its two-party authentication process originated from Hack Week, he adds.
Intellectual property issues
But with random people being asked to create something original and useful, what if they actually succeed? The issue of intellectual property (IP) appears to be a gray area.
Margaret Hagan, a Pittsburgh resident and a Stanford law school student, says she had been to six public hackathons in the last year without hearing any discussion of IP. "The worst case is that there has been no serious discussion of IP, funding does come through and team members start coming out of the woodwork," she says. "There needs to be a frank conversation about the ramifications of going forward."