Hackathons: 6 Alternatives Outcomes

Hackathons are invading our schools, towns, and workplaces.

One cannot walk across a college campus, through an industry cafeteria, or through a town hall, without seeing an advertisement for a hackathon. Hackathons are marathon problem solving session that bring together people with different backgrounds to produce a technical solution, sometimes in exchange for a cash prize or bragging rights. The popularity of hackathons increases as technology pervades more facets of our lives, more governments and non-profit organizations appropriate the practice, and we exalt Silicon Valley innovation practices.

Yet, practitioners and researchers increasingly agree that people generate less code and digital artifacts than through traditional programming strategies. This so-called productivity loss has led many researchers to conclude that hackathons are not productive. I question this conclusion because it is based on efficient code generation as the primary effectiveness outcome and on studies that do not examine how or why organizations use hackathons.

Through participation and interviewers with organizers, participants, and non-participants, I suggest alternative outcomes: (1) supporting talent recruitment and selection (2) supporting technical capacity and expertise, (3) supporting expansion of social networks, (4) providing exposure to rapid development process, (5) impressing clients or funders, and (6) providing income for the organization.

1. Supporting talent recruitment and selection. Hackathons may replace career fairs as spaces to identify and select new talent. In 24 to 36 hours, recruiters can quickly evaluate people’s technical and social skills (and applicants can understand a company’s priorities.) An organization may sponsor a hackathon for a $1,000 for snacks and goodies – a relatively low fee compared to the fee a recruiter may demand.

2. Supporting technical capacity and expertise: Hackathons may lower the bar to entry or support skill building. People with limited coding ability can work side by side with an expert to develop capacity. In turn, the programmer may learn new skills in design, marketing, development, and finance. And learn to apply these skills in an engaging project rather than an abstract application in a formal classroom.

3. Supporting expansion of social networks: Participants are often diverse and have opportunities to develop new ties between organizers, sponsors, and participants. Face to face communication strengthens both personal (job and volunteer opportunities) and organizational level (knowledge sharing).

4. Providing exposure to rapid development process: Due to the limited time in which people have to work on projects, teams tend to follow an agile and iterative development process. Quickly developing ideas, testing the idea and returning to fix what is not working. This process is new to many who only know stage gate development process in which an initiative is divided up into stages and formal assessment is needed before proceeding to each stage.

5. Impression clients or funders: During hackathons, people typically co-locate in one space. Laptops, white boards, and colorful post-it notes abound. Left over containers from the previous meals, coffee cups, and granola bar wrappers scatter the table suggesting their has been now time to break. Online leaderboards capture Github commits showing off continuous work. The time bound event encourages focus and determination not always seen day to day at work.

6. Providing income for the organization: Designing and running hackathon has become a service. People charge for agenda setting, set-up, facilitation, documentation, and catering. Increasingly industrial affiliated conferences offer “Hackathons” alongside their traditional programming of speakers, panels, and posters.

When hackathons are examined in the context and the “effectiveness at what” and “effectiveness for whom” questions are asked, efficacy at code and digital artifacts may not deserve special status as an effectiveness outcome. I encourage a broader perspective for assessing hackathons effectiveness.

I am grateful to Bob Sutton whose article on the effectiveness of brainstorming in context served as an inspiration, to Silvia Lindtner for inspiring me to write this post, to Emily Porter, Chris, Bopp, and Amy Voida for doing the research upon which this post is based: Reappropriating Hackathons: The Production Work of CHI4Good Day of Service, Proceedings of Factors in Human Computer Interaction, 2017.

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