Diversity & Inclusion
Coding / Education / Entrepreneurs / Hackathons

There was a hackathon about hackathons: Hackcon II

Major League Hacking gathered 200 hackathon organizers to talk about how to improve the hackathon experience. Here are the good ideas that emerged from the weekend event (and a few suggestions).

Major League Hacking's Jonathan Gottfried (center) speaks during a panel at Hackcon II. (Photo courtesy of Major League Hacking)
Correction: Jonathan Gottfried is pictured in the above photo, not Rob Spectre. (2/6/15, 11:42 p.m.)

Livestream Public just hosted a hackathon about hackathons, Hackcon II, from Major League Hacking, a worldwide organizer of student hackathons.
At the opening of the weekend event in Bushwick, the company’s CEO, Mike Swift, and Twilio developer evangelist, Rob Spectre, discussed the progress they’ve seen in hackathons in recent years. But also offered these thoughts on how to make them better:

  • “Equality of Quality.” “We believe that every single student has the right to hack,” Swift said as he described what MLH calls “Equality of Quality.” He seemed to be arguing that the first step to making hackathons welcoming is to run them really well, that’s why MLH has invested in having staff on the ground at as many of their hackathons as they can, to cover gaps for the organizers.
  • Access to the latest tech. By having cool stuff like Oculus Rifts and Arduinos on site makes a real difference for developers with limited means. For those without the disposable income to buy those things, it gives them a chance to see them that might not otherwise. Plus, Swift points out, even for devs with some money to spend, it helps to try something before buying. Hackathons are a good space for that.
  • Addressing negative events. An incident-reporting process for hackathons was implemented in the last year, for dealing with it quickly when someone does something that makes the event unsafe or when there’s an accident.
  • Best practices. In order to codify their improvements and spread them, MLH has made a hackathon guide.
  • Upping inclusivity. This topic came up again and again. Swift appeared to be dead serious about it, without going into any incidents from the past. He did say, “Making things accessible to people who are just learning to code is super important.” Adding that hackathons can feel a little bit like high-fiving sessions for elite coders, and they need to create more space for non-coders to do valuable work and to learn some code if they want to.
  • Sponsorships that work for brands and for hackers. Spectre spoke about the role of the sponsor. Twilio sponsors a lot of hackathons. As a sponsor, he’s done all kinds of things, but he’s learned some lessons. Such as, “You really can’t just buy 400 chili dogs at 3 a.m. in Detroit,” he said.
  • “The Brain Trust.” This was the sponsor activity he appeared to like best: Plant two or three professional devs under a company’s banner. Make them available to hackers to solve problems as the hackathon goes. It doesn’t matter if the coding problem relates to the company’s work. If those devs solved a problem during your hackathon, you’re going to associate that brand with people who taught you something useful.
  • Sponsorships that don’t work. Don’t do this: demos, yoga breaks and anything that takes hackathoners away from hacking.
  • Connecting with brands that share. “The connections you form when you learn something new are stronger and indelible for your entire life,” Spectre said.
Photo: HackRU (@thehackru), by Michelle Chen (@michipster)

Attendees of Hackcon II. (Photo by Michelle Chen/HackRU)

Here’s the larger point that made this event signficant: Hackathons are awesome.

They may be the most grassrootsy, most unifying, most purely creativity- and changemaking-driven aspect of the tech community.
It’s interesting that so few other creative endeavors have anything similar. Ever heard of droves of painters spending a whole weekend in a gym somewhere with teams competing to make the best series of paintings on a topic? It just doesn’t happen. For all the lamentations of the tech community’s inherent awkwardness, its denizens go out of their way to collaborate. For fun.
Most analyses of hackathons pretty much stop there. They are great. People build important connections. Sometimes they come up with the vestiges of an idea worth scaling.

For all the lamentations of the tech community's inherent awkwardness, its denizens go out of their way to collaborate. For fun.

Here’s the dirty secret, though: hackathons aren’t perfect. They are great, but they aren’t perfect. They could work better at engendering inclusivity, learning and yielding better ideas. The trouble is, since most hackathons are organized by volunteers and running one is such a heavy lift, it’s tough to push them to add to their work by sitting down and sorting out how to do better. They already have enough work to do.
That’s why the community is lucky that Major League Hacking has turned them into a business. As a business, it has the space and the motive to get serious about innovating in the hackathon space and working to make them work better. Major League Hacking had ten times more events from 2013 to 2014. It’s spreading its better ideas quickly.
The event was not free, though there were scholarships. It cost $100 to attend, but considering that the price of admission also included a place to stay in NYC for two nights and food, the event was clearly about improving the MLH hackathon experience and not about making money.
Swift also wants to see new innovations in hackathons. As much as he loves hackathons, he called the format stale. “The last big innovation we had in hackathons is what? The expo?” he asked the room. “We need to push the boundaries in a radical way.”
How about a mobile app that uses tech like the iBeacon so that teams that need people can post what they need and the skills they’re looking for? That way free agents can find them without doing the emotionally draining work of introducing themselves to group after group only to find they’re not the right fit.
Can someone hack that up?
Photo by Nick Quinlan, Commissioner of Major League Hacking.

Pre-Hackcon selfie from the commissioner of Major League Hacking, Nick Quinlan. (Used by permission)

See lots more from Hackcon II on Livestream.

Companies: Livestream / Major League Hacking
Series: Brooklyn

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