What Is The Point Of A Hackathon?

There is much conversation happening at the moment around the outcomes of "hackthons" and other such community lead events - what do they actually achieve, do we ever get anything useful out of them, are 'apps' ever truly delivered?(this is over and above the topical, "sheesh, another hackathon, haven't we reached peak hackathon yet?" - have we, maybe ;)

Our view on hackathons, no matter what they are called, is that they deliver on 3 counts:

  1. Yes, something might be delivered on the day after the event happens
  2. In the medium term there are teams that take their ideas on (maybe)
  3. In the long term it;' all about the community

(and there's always the unspoken '4' - let's have a bloody good time!)

Before we crack into the details, note this post is aimed at public and open events. Hackathons (by whatever name they are used, eg "ShipIt Day" is what Xero calls them) internally to a company have slightly different outcomes, talk to us if you want to know more.

Short term: A thing is made, really?

The first is the easiest to discuss. Hackathons can hold up Twitter as the poster child of something that came from a hack - if you want Twitter in your life this is a good thing, if not then not so good.

But let's be open and honest, it's rare for a team in 48 hours to produce a world beating 'thing' be that an app, a web service or merely a totally cohesive idea. Events that have focus on specific human needs have a chance, otherwise it's an exercise in, "suck and see".

This might seem defeatist from the get-go, NO! It's recognition that amazing could happen but time working out what pain is being solved alows for a better chance of success ... a better chance, but not a guarantee.

Medium term: Teams stick together and do more stuff, yeah right!

This is that hardest to quantify.

For a start, what is "short term"?

But also, teams that go through fire together over a 48 hour period will always have the, "Hi [raised eyebrows]" experience when passing in the street, but are they really gonna stick it out to take their 'thing' to a commercial ending. IN or experience that without support, no, this almost never happens and it's the part we at Hack Miramar are working upon the most.

We'll take this on the chin, this is hard and what hackathons (start-up weekends, incubation programmes and many other "start-up" activites) have to step up and recognise that this cannot be done alone. As we say, we are working on this.

Long term: Community, blah blah blah, who cares?

In a nutshell; hackathons, barcamps and all these hippy dippy events are a cornerstone of the community.

That's not to say all those other activites don't count; meetups, conferences, engagement breakfasts, business roundtables, awards ceremonys, association get togethers, user group events, beers to have a geek yarn - these are all parts of building the community.

And a community of those that can do is what we want. Not a clique, not rockstars that espouse from above, not mere online conversations, not "best practice" as learnt from manuals from those with letters after their name. We need a passionate cross section of people, coming together (on their own term), to have have fun, clash with new views / skills / approaches and to get something done (see "short term"). 

The best online communities are as vibrant offline as they are on - is yours?