Sketching with Code

What's the point of a hack day if nothing happens after the event?

A question I was asked today, and it got me thinking. Attend a good hack day and you will see tens of hacks presented in the final rounding-up session, but how many of these prototypes and sketches go on to be developed further, turned into real products and services, companies even?

Does it matter if the answer is “well, pretty much none of them!”?

Anecdotally I’d say that the vast majority of hacks produced at hack days tend to fall by the wayside and do not receive any further development after the day. However, there do seem to be a small proportion that are taken forward, gain investment (in the broad sense of eye word) and end up as extra features of an existing product, or products and services in their own right.

I’ve noticed recently, that whereas many hackdays and latterly hackathons started out as days for experimentation and exploration we are now seeing them being used as a way for companies to find and acquire talent, and one of the things put to potential attendees is the idea that if they’re lucky, and their hack is “good enough” then they will get a chance to present their idea to a handful of influential and powerful investors/industry people. Perhaps with a suggestion that their hack could get some seed funding to turn it from a hack into an investable proposition, gain some additional funds to turn it into a prototype, or just straight up get the attention of these important people in order to get a first/better job.

I think that this is probably a strong motivator for young hackers and designers - to get the “break” they’ve always been hoping for, and that’s an admirable thing to hope to achieve for your attendees as a hack day organiser.

However, putting some kind of promise of a “prize” at the core of the event, I feel, alters it and turns it away from a playful, fun, collaborative event into one that is much more serious, competitive and siloed. I know the feeling from first hand experiences, having attended non-competitive hack days versus as well as ones that have an element of competition.

I’m quite competitive, so even if the prize is basically my day rate for two days’ work, I’d be pretty motivated to make sure I ‘win’ (whatever that means!). The trouble is, that in doing so you end up closing down and not collaborating helpfully with those around you, as much as you might have done had the competition element not been part of the mix.

For that reason, I’m not a big fan of “big prize” hack days, where teams of people who already work together go to an event to show how wonderful they are against all the other company teams. Gone is the element of playful collaboration, learning and exploration that I find so exciting about hack days.

I guess that’s why I find the term “hackathon” irritating - I have a (probably incorrect) mental connection between “hackathon” and “competitive hacking event” versus “hackday” and “collaborative hacking event”.