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Ask HN: Does anyone actually code at a hackathon?
123 points by iqster on Feb 19, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 77 comments
This is really to vent my frustration. I've participated in about 6 hackathons in the last year. 4 in the SF Bay area and 2 in NYC. Today, I'm at the Foursquare hackathon in NYC. It seems the majority of people are just talking and networking. Now it is possible that these guys have learned to code without keyboards but I highly doubt it. I am not pissed that people are networking ... this should not be the primary activity. Otherwise, we should call it a bloody mixer!! The thing that really pisses me off is that these chatterboxes are going to show off completed apps ... ones they have not built at the hackathon. Now seriously ... in the few hours at one of these events, you simply cannot create a polished app unless you have a large group of developers who are seriously coding. I have seen such efforts (e.g. at the iOS hackathon at Paypal earlier this year ... people were actually coding inside the auditorium and talking outside).

I'm really frustrated by this state of affairs. I don't come to a hackathon to pitch my latest startup app ... I come to code. In some instances, I've decided not to present at all the end of the hackathon cause most of the other teams are presenting an extremely polished piece of work (again, I have BIG doubts that some of these are done during the event).

Anyways ... vent complete. It would be nice to know I'm not alone.

Hey isqster,

I'm Jorge and I work as a software engineer at Foursquare. I'm sorry to hear that you're frustrated at our hackathon. Certainly some people are chatting and socializing, but that's only natural when you put a lot of people in the same room. From what I can tell though, the vast majority of people are actually building something today.

Some people have brought projects that they started before today, but I think that's not necessarily a bad thing. The hackathon wasn't meant as a sprint to see who can churn out the most code in a day, but rather a gathering of developers who are excited about the Foursquare API and what can be built on it. We want people to share ideas about what they're building and what's possible to build on top of our API, and yes, also to encourage people to build new stuff. (That said, not everyone has brought prior work to the hackathon! I know at least one team that has built several apps on top of our API in the past, and they've started a genuinely new project from scratch for the hackathon.)

If you feel the main room is too noisy, there's lots of side rooms at General Assembly which are a little quieter. You'll see teams in the side rooms making generous use of the white boards to design their app and plan out the necessary work for building it.

Again, I'm sorry you're feeling frustrated. If you have any suggestions on how we can make future hackathons more conducive to coding, feel free to ping me in meatspace. (I'm sitting against the big white wall by the water cooler. My name tag says "Jorge".)

One easy way is to give away prizes to the top 3 apps built at the hackathon. The reason why people actually coded at the iOS hackathon were the prizes (I attended). Obviously submissions built prior to the hackathon would be disqualified so this prevents people from building it, then attending.

There's still lots of socialization, but I believe hackathons should be centered around code, otherwise you might as well just call it a foursquare mixer. There were lots of really cool apps built at the iOS hackathon -- I'm really glad it was so hacker-centric, however the prizes were significant. Paypal gave away 3 iPads to winners that night.

Also, if the goal is to get people learning about the foursquare API -- the only way people will learn is by practicing. I learned a lot from others at the iOS hackathon -- even stuff I thought I already knew well. I think foursquare would get a lot more mileage if they just added a few small prizes to fuel competition.

Some of my friends are marathon runners -- they say that if the city sponsoring the running event offers no prizes, almost no professional runners will show up, but if the city offered a $100 small prize, there will be a significant amount of pro athletes attending. Does foursquare want pro hackers attending, or do they just want scavengers who are attending for the free food?

An iPad is not a significant prize. A professional developer earns an ipad every day or two at their day job, and that is guaranteed even for the fourth best work product of the day.

Significant compared to most hackathon prizes is what I meant. Most hack day prizes are a pat on the back or useless company schwag. I don't believe hackers attend hack days for the purpose of actually making enough money to fund their living styles.

Jorge ... thanks for your note. And I want to thank Foursquare for organizing the event. You guys didn't charge to let people in (unlike some other events), provided free food the entire day and were very helpful in answering questions. My main goal was to learn to use your API and I did. I appreciate this a lot!

My frustration wasn't directed solely at the Foursquare hackathon. Like I said ... I've seen this happen at a number of other events I've participated in. Clearly, since the hackathon isn't over yet, I cannot speak to the apps written by the participants (in the original post, I was referring to past events organized by others). Clearly some amazing coders are going to show great apps they've built in a short period of time. My intent is not to belittle that effort.

I completely feel you pain on this one. I attended the New England College Hackathon last weekend and was utterly disappointed. During the 12 hours we were there, they managed to only feed us once and we were bombarded by windows surveys and evangelists looking for free / cheap labor.

To make matters worse, the judges only picked winners from the local area (and made poor choices IMHO). The second place winner did NO coding at all the entire time and the first place project was 4 months old.

Something needs to be done about this. Hackathons need standards too!

Hey man, thanks for the feedback. We did a bad job, next time I hope we'll do better. Some of the things we'll focus on:


I'm extremely sorry to hear you were disappointed. Like dtrejo said, there are a LOT of things we hope to change for next time. Please don't hesitate to shoot me an email if you have any other feedback.

Also, I can't resist pointing out that all but ten lines of code for the first place hack were created during the Hackathon: https://github.com/dfield/ConcertMasterHero. That said, I did not accept the first place prize because I was an organizer.

Side rooms are a saving grace. I went to a Techcrunch hackathon (and I shall never go to another) where we were told that nobody could use the side rooms - we all had to sit in the noisy main hall area. Obviously the PR opportunity was the primary motivation behind the hackathon.

The Haskell ones tend to produce a lot of code: but we plan ahead on what to work on, and turn up with small teams.

More info on how we do planning: http://www.haskell.org/haskellwiki/Hackathon

I guess it has a bit to do with the different focuses, at the foursquare event your likely to get people who are trying to grow a business, so networking will be a primary goal of theres and it is advantageous to them to show something more polished to get some attention for the project.

A quick look at the Haskell page shows you guys are more focused on the language and supporting libraries themselves, which I assume most people are doing it out of love for the language and programming rather than any commercial gain.

The focus is primarily about building open source infrastructure, so yep, for the love of code (though often informed by commercial need).

Did you ever attend an OpenBSD hackathon? I'm just curious.

No, was a bit hard to make it to .ca from .au. However, they did inspire the structure of the Haskell ones.

If you're getting a lot of code out of it then you're doing a fine job.

Argh! It was last weekend at Hacker Dojo? I live downtown Mountain View, and learning Haskell is my pet project, how did I miss that?

I've been to many hackathons both in the SF Bay area and in the Sydney area, and I find the Sydney ones to involve much more hacking.

I think many people in the tech scene in the SF bay area are there because they want to get in on that scene, because it's the hot/$$ thing todo, but they don't actually have tech skills - so when they come to tech events, they either find a way to not hack, or they find someone to hold their hand through hacking.

We don't have that problem in Sydney. Basically everyone who is in the tech scene is in it because they truly like tech and have the skills. (Or they will try damn hard to develop the skills themself.)

Generally, I find we have a higher quality of developers at free tech events in Sydney than in San Francisco for that reason. I was pretty happy when I moved from SF to Sydney and realized that I no longer needed to figure out how to filter the pseudo-techs from the Google tech events that I organized.

I was at the Sydney government data hackfest in the Powerhouse Museum yesterday. Everyone seemed pretty focused on the hacking and nobody as far as I could tell brought completed code.

I think you're right that the downside of having a high-profile hacking scene in the bay is that you get scenesters. I'm not convinced that's the source of the problem in this case, though.

You have to ask "what's the point of this event?" If, as Jorge said, it's a gathering of developers rather than a sprint to make an app, then that isn't what I would call a hackathon. The ones that I've been to had prizes, a strict time limit, and rules (well, guidelines) about prior code. Their point was to make applications under constraint, and when you have less than eight hours to make an app, there's no time for networking. That comes after. :)

That's not to say the Foursquare guys are doing anything wrong, just that the word hackathon can mean a lot of things. If they're thinking "cool developer melting pot" and you're thinking "fuck talking, I came here to code like crazy" then obviously you'll come away frustrated.

The answer in this case is that Foursquare could be more explicit with their expectations for the day, or the OP could be more mercenary with the hackfests they attend (eg, only ones with prizes, or where prior code is discouraged).

Maybe moving to Sydney is something I should look into, theres the occasional meetup (ruby, node communities (in a library :P)) but that's all there seems to be. Brisbane is rather dull in many ways.

What's the best way to get in contact with all the Brisbane based hackers so we can get the scene off the ground?

Funny you should ask this today, I just sent out a notification for YBITS, the Young Brisbane IT Social.

The idea is to get a group of like-minded young (of mind) IT professionals together in a 'networking' format that doesn't feel douchy.

It's part of my cunning master-plan to give Brisbane a bit more of a startup scene, but most of the attendees are still un-aware:P

I think it'd be a great venue to kick something like that off, do you want to work together on something? YBITS is here: https://groups.google.com/group/YBITS/browse_thread/thread/4... (That's the link to our march meeting) and you can contact me via my details here.

There are a few groups on meetup.com (rails, js, and some some other smaller ones). That is all I seem to know of.

I recently attended a NightOwls meetup in Tel Aviv and had the same reaction. I still plan on attending events like this, because:

1. I can program at home any night.

2. Hackathons allow collaborating in person with other hackers. This is much more valuable to me than pure programming.

3. Hackathons are perfect places to find co-founders and developers, because they mix of programming and networking. I can demo apps and informally meet the people behind them all at once.

Edit: In all fairness, NightOwls isn't meant to be a hackathon. I used it as an example because it emphasizes working and getting things done.


The night owls concept is generally a fairly short event to, so most people don't come expecting to get to much done rather to work in a bit more relaxed environment and interact with other like minded people. (In the Melbourne version anyway).

I share your frustration. I think many of the trendier companies have a tendency for it to end up being networking and also about being seen at so-and-so's hackathon. It's a 'scene' for many ppl who wanna be 'hackers' but really are not.

My biggest pet-peeve at hackathons are those who turn up with full working hacks they did prior. Nothing wrong with that but please have the courtesy to not enter them into the competition against the poor smuck (like me) who only had the last 12 hours to pull their hack together.

I actually feel like your event (NYTimes Hackday in December) was pretty good along those lines; I didn't get the feeling that any of the applications had a significant amount of pre-writing code-wise.

Glad you enjoyed it. We should be doing it again this year too.

There were a couple with projects that were written a week+ prior but we factored that into the conversation when giving out prizes.

Cool! I dunno if we'll be able to make it out again (we were the Night Scheduler guys), but I'll definitely see what I can do.

Really? There were a couple that I could see that being a possibility with (the Etsy/Flickr guys), but I didn't even consider them as contenders seeing as how they sponsored. shrug

Were you at the NYTimes Open Hackday? My teammate and I flew in from Michigan (to be fair, I'm originally from the Tri-State area) to participate, and we damn well weren't just there for networking. That having been said, the networking is incredible. I participated in a Yahoo! Hack U event up here in the great white north, and landed a job this summer out of it (and an offer from Yahoo, which I wound up turning down); the offers that a little bit of networking at the NYTimes one turned up were incredible as well.

Honestly, it's all about balance. My teammate and I spent 99% of the time at these two events coding. We walked in with absolutely no code pre-written, and emerged from both events with a fully-functional application, the synthesis of which we plan to put into full production in the near future. However, the one or two hours of networking that we engaged in, be it during "hacking time" or not, were extremely valuable (and, arguably, helped shape part of our final applications).

Just my two cents.

I was also at the TimesOpen Hack day, and spent most of the day coding. There was a lot of chatter there, though (some of it contributed to what my app eventually became). Bring headphones for when you need to start building. Thankfully no one there presented deckware.

Were you one of the Trippy guys? Really liked your application. I was one of the two Night Scheduler developers.


I was wondering why they were being selective on the people who could come to this. I really wanted to come and learn more about their API but it seems as though they were picking people who already built on it. Isn't the point of these events to get new people into the ecosystem?

To answer the question, yes people really do code and come up with solid apps at these events. Check out the music hackday apps that were built last weekend at the same space: http://wiki.musichackday.org/index.php?title=NYC_2011_Hacks

Send a message to my github account when we do the next foursquare hackathon and I'll do my best to get you in (https://github.com/tjulien). We maxed out the number of attendees based on how many people the space could hold. There was no criteria of having used our api before.

Will do. It was more packed than last week?

About the same number of people as at music hack day, I guess

As I understand it, there was some vague talk about being selective, in case they maxed out the capacity of the space, but in the end I believe they sent out tickets to everyone who signed up, and nobody was turned away.

Nope, I signed up and didn't receive one.

We attended the Foursquare hackathon yesterday as participants and ended up winning with our thedealio.at private messaging app.

To be honest, the only thing we had completed prior to arriving at 1:00p was that we knew the idea. We had no name, no code written, had not heard about the new API features released, nothing. So at least it's one datapoint that the winners aren't all pre-developed, polished products.

For me, the biggest benefit of hackathons are that you are absolutely forced to use all sorts of skills, not all developer-focused. We had to discover a problem that was worth solving for a lot of people (P/M fit, I suppose). We had to battle with stupid issues like buying an .at domain name and having my credit card get locked up due to an overseas suspicious purchase, then having to wait for DNS to propagate so we could get an SSL certificate issued as required by a new feature of the Foursquare API. Also how the look and feel should be, the UX--simplicity, fun, and engaging. We spent the first three hours writing no code, just getting our game plan in place.

Then of course in the actual development we broke all kinds of rules like code duplication, no testing, editing code directly on the production server, etc. We focused squarely on speed, knowing that time would be our biggest threat.

Which brings me to my main point. Building any software product is all about compromises, and knowing when to make them. It does go against the spirit of a hackathon to bring a polished product to demo, while just networking all day. We didn't do that and did okay. But only by using every means available (including pretty much skipping dinner).

I hope that the possibility of polished products doesn't hurt the hackathon spirit, and this post is mostly to offer encouragment that single-day hacks can still hold their own. There were some really great hacks there, and the ones I know that were built just yesterday were among my favorites (4squareand7years being my particular fave).

I have a hard time actually hacking at such events, but I've seen great development work happen in a slightly different context --

I think the ideal format is a pair of events, separated by a week or two. At the first, you present some cool new technology (a new sensor, embedded platform, api, etc.). You show some examples of how it works. People get together and discuss, form teams, etc. Then, during the next week or couple of weeks, they get together in person at other locations, or collaborate online, to develop stuff. Then, there's another big public meeting, where successful projects can be demonstrated. Best of both worlds. Maybe at the second session people can beta test, give feedback, etc.

(I'm actually at SuperHappyDevHouse 42 in San Jose right now; learning more about Intel TXT in a corner with my laptop, while other people play board games and socialize...)

I'm at SHDH as well (hi!). There's definitely a mix here, but I think part of that is because of the venue. The only reason I'm on HN right now is that I'm waiting for a screen scraper to finish, which is terribly slow on the wifi here. I was hacking until my battery died, at which point I decided to explore and mingle a bit until an outlet opened up. At past events, it was a similar mix - certainly not 24 hours of pure coding, but it's an environment where I can hack away on stuff I've been putting off for a while and still enjoy myself. YMMV.


Sitting at an orange table in the middle of the upstairs room staring at a laptop with a black wool shirt, fingerless gloves and a faux-hawk. Find me.

I was at the same FourSquare hackathon today, and you're right -- there was a lot of socializing going on, and there were people who seemed to be trying to figure out how to present their previously-existing project or startup.

On the other hand, the New York hacker scene is anemic enough that we can use any chance to socialize and network that we get -- and there were people there actually coding things from scratch today, myself included.

I had to leave before the presentations, and haven't see most of the apps people have been working on, so I can't comment on the "overly polished" aspect of this... But in an ideal world, I would hope that people would be able to enjoy whichever aspects of the event were relevant to them, and not get sidetracked by the people who were on a different track.

Absolutely. Eventually you sink into the code and forget about the chatter and your shitty laptop keyboard and you can get a lot done. A few hours later, you can come out of it, get some beers, and go back to sitting at your desk for 12 hours a day.

Some software I've written at hackathons:



Yes, they can be successful, if people are focused.

For example, see this account of a recent OpenBSD hackathon: http://undeadly.org/cgi?action=article&sid=2010111509113...

as someone who regularly competes in hack days and has won a few, there is nothing more annoying than having someone come in for a few hours, add a new feature to an already developed product then enter the whole thing in as a hack, a lot of the time the Judges don't know and it just promotes the tactic to other people...

I noticed Leeds Hack solve this by the judges going around all the teams in the morning and having a friendly chat about the hacks being made. Gives them a chance to better understand the hacks as hackers aren't always good presenters and they get to directly ask "Which bits of this did you write today?".

How would you enforce that only work done doing the hackathon is presented as the entry? Not trolling, genuinely curious and looking for suggestions.

When we run hack days we do simple things like check when the domain was registered, check if its indexed in Google and a few other things but what we also do is have at least two developers on the judging panel that can judge if someone has cheated or not... It does work both ways though, we almost lost a PayPal hack day last year because the judges believed we had worked on the product previously when we had genuinely built it from scratch in 24 hours.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHkKRO4Po_g is the video of our presentation btw :)

I'm glad you guys weren't disqualified, but I'm lol'ing at the irony of PayPal judges presuming guilt and asking you to prove your innocence. Good to know that they carry that policy everywhere.

Verify against a repository, simplest way, just require everyone to provide you access to their svn/git/whatever log.

I've always found my productivity (especially in regards to debugging) dropping massively when I'm stuck with just a small laptop screen. So with coding efficiency dropping so much, it only makes more sense to seize the moment and do what you can't at your home/office: bounce ideas around with others.

As someone who usually works from home I find that coworking gives me enough extra concentration that outweighs the using a smaller screen than usual. Also having your team in the same room every now and then does wonders for tracking own bugs and planning new features.

We've now run 5 Health 2.0 Developer Challenge Code-a-thons (we have some Federal gov cooperation and they wont let us call then hackathons!). Sure at each one there is chatting and networking but at each one somewhere north of 100 people produce anywhere between 8-12 teams each of whom show what can be built in a short day (9-5). While they're not always fully completed apps, most are, and most have been terrific.

And while it's OK to bring in something that's been worked on before, most of the teams at the code-a-thons meet at the day and integrate medical professionals with coders.

So anyone who wants to come code at an event where what you build might really make a difference (not that we dont love Zunga & FourSquare, but....) check out www.health2challenge.org

Maybe competitive events get more people coding?

I went to the first SF startup weekend where 40 people tried to implement a single idea. A democratically selected idea which was the first choice of very few people.

They have since switched to competing self-selected teams and much better ideas and implementations resulted.

See? Distributed decision making works better for many things.

Anyway, my point, besides the blatantly political one, is attend events where the structure and rules are conducive to what you want to do. And if the rules aren't published in advance, call and find out. And don't be afraid to leave if you think you're time will be wasted.

The code sprints and hackathons we have in the Drupal community in Los Angeles are highly focused on a specific task or event with an actual deadline, so everyone is expected to participate. There's always something for non-developers to do, from user testing and content editing to being in charge of food or music.

Can't say I've had this problem at any of the UK hackdays I frequently attend, only the US ones I've been to.

I think one of the differences is having an overnight. The networkers and loiterers bugger off after a few hours leaving just the developers and designers overnight who want to actually make interesting things.

I notice this happening a lot in our area as well. When we host hackathons we try to have a topic to focus on as well as project ideas and open source projects ready to work on.

I think opening a public git hub repo with what you want to work on then having people pull that down can start some great coding sessions.

Hey, I actually took a train from long island to the city this morning expecting to take a tour of 'general assembly', (where this hackathon was hosted)..But I didnt get past the elevator because of the hackathon! I wish I had known because I would have love to have been there coding with u iqster! Anyway, I plan on becoming a communal member there next month after they review the thousands of applications they have recieved.. iqster, did you get a chance to talk to any of the founders of general assembly there or anyone that is a member?? I talked to Matt Brimer for 5 mins next to the elevator, he couldn't sit down and talk with me because of the hackathon! I was planning on taking a tour and joining today but BLEHH! Do you have aim or skype iqster?

They should probably just rename them something else.

I agree on this one. Don't call it a "hackathon". Misleading solved.

I think you'll find that many gatherings are like this. Tech Conferences in particular seem to fall into this category where half of the people are there to network and the other half are there for the meat and potatoes content of the conference.

I've been to several multi day and one-day hackathons, mostly in the Bay Area. I've shipped code at every single one, but I definitely share your frustrations at those who turn up and demo stuff they built elsewhere. I also have had trouble actually socialising at some hackathons, because everyone was so focused on their own project they didn't want to talk for 5 minutes about their problems (related to the app I was building to solve them). Oh well!

I think clearer rules around "look, guys, congratulations for doing a startup, but this is not the place to pitch your year-old app" would immensely help.

I participated yesterday. It's my second hackathon. I get your frustration with the typical hackathon.

My approach is to focus on finding the right people and the right concept at the beginning of the event and to get to know them better while working with them. The goal is to walk away with some new relationships. I spend only a small amount of time talking with the rest of the crowd.

At an event like the foursquare hackathon, I'm not really concerned what happens with the presentations. At other events, like TechCrunch Disrupt or Startup Weekend, I would.

I did. The only hackathon I ever did was a TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon last year. I stayed up all night, and made a real-time, semantic question-and-answer site where you could invite your friends via instant message.

It didn't win. Some robot that stabbed imaginary people in the air won.

It looked like most people there used existing software and just added something onto it. If I knew that, I would have come and added something to YouMixer.com ... I think I would have won :)

Update: I just went there and it looks like it somehow took off in spain!

I compete fairly by writing 100% of code at the event, but I also have a product that I wrote and implemented as an API. It is a powerful API similar in scope to what Tungle likely has (I don't have access to a competitor's API).

When I demo my hack, I de-emphasize the use of my API. In effect, I grab a couple of sponsor APIs, mix them with my own API, and create a product.

I talk with teams for a while and help them when I can. In the end I take 24 hours to simply code.

I just got out of the Tor hack day in Cambridge MA (which I hear may become a monthly event, yay!). We divided into two rooms: soft ware (code) and soft skills (documentation, policy, how to run a server on your PC, fundraising,...)

I thought this worked pretty well, although I can't say either room was lacking conversation! But in our case this is also about community building for an open source project - slightly different agenda.

I was at a Zynga Hackathon at Berkeley a year ago. I suppose it's true a good amount of networking goes on, but that didn't bother me too much. I was really there just to hack something together overnight, and my team actually moved to a separate location so we wouldn't be disturbed. So overall it was a pretty good experience despite what other teams were doing. Hope you also feel this way in the future!

The last one I was at my team built an interesting HTML 5 game with impactjs in under 24 hours (we sponsored the hackathon). There were a lot of cool projects built in the same time period. However, the biggest problem was non-workers who just wanted to chat with people who were actually working. It was very distracting and I bet many of the projects would have gotten further without the distractions.

I've been to several hackathons in Ontario and there's always tonnes of coding getting done. We had 19 apps one time.

Same thing happens in Montreal.

This complaint is kind of like complaining about people going to dance clubs to socialize and hook up rather than dance.

OP, I'd suggest you accept the current state of affairs, or start your own event focused on what you want to do. Why rain on other people's parade?

I've observed this sort of thing in a few coding contests recently - coding contests that were poorly designed. It is quite unfair to people who want to follow the intended spirit, you're right.

Does anyone know if a hackathon has been held where there were active measures/rules/restrictions in place to ensure that all development was done within the period of the hackathon?

Yes, I just got home from a code for america datacamp hackathon at socrata in seattle, was a lot of fun and quite productive.

I have done several hackathon's and I have always coded the entire project there. I usually do all of the planning and organization ahead of time but I always complete the code during the event. Thats part of the fun of it IMO.

solution: start your own event. call it Actual Hackathon (TM)

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