Hackathon no more?



Are you going to X hackathon? Didn't I see you at Y hackathon? Hmm I should go to Z hackathon, shouldn't I? Hackathons have been around for 20 years, and a sizeable chunk of my college cohort still seems to be very interested in them. These competitions have morphed due to factors such as changing expectations and demographics. Hackathons have turned into something that's very different from what they used to be.

Hold on, what are you talking about?

I started going to hackathons in 2015, during a colloquial "Golden Age" of hackathons. Back then, the larger Canadian and American events (off the top of my mind: MHacks, Hack the North, Pennapps) were peaking in prominence and size. Hackathons were just starting to become mainstream for college students, and my friends and I were one of the lucky few highschoolers who got to attend them this early.

This recap video for MHacks V shows what the energy and atmosphere was like back then:

My favorite hackathon memories were all made during those first few years. Most people were attending these events for their first time, gathering to create a community that was distinguished by genuine creativity and a curiosity to learn. People came in without the goal of winning; a huge number of participants made teams and ideas on the spot, and were always down to pivot so as to maximize the fun and learning they woulve have at these weekends. Almost every finalist project had a totally unique idea and implementation. And there were tons of projects that were made just to crack a joke and have a good time:

And hackathons were not just competitions; they were social galas. People came in, dressed in dinosaur and astronaut costumes, feeling fully welcomed within a special culture that valued uniqueness and individual wackiness. Hackathons were gaining in momentum and energy: organizers managed to come up with ever more creative events (starting traditions such as spicy noodle challenges, bubble tea tables, and karaoke), and company sponsorships were skyrocketing. This was when some events got large enough to rent entire football stadiums and venues for the first and last time. Here, I got to meet the most unique and interesting people of my hackathon career. It was a great time.

cd hack project
A cool hardware hack that etched content onto CDs

Having this baseline in mind, we can see that our current events are a far cry from what they used to be.

Ok, how have they changed?

When you go to a hackthon these days, you will feel that something is off. The event just doesn't feel like a haven for creativity, building and bonding. In general, I think the broader hackathon world is facing these issues:

  1. Company presence dominates the hackathon: Hackathons are not for-profit events. In order to survive, they must use a combination of company sponsorships, venue bursaries and food services partners to make the event possible. Naturally, this means that companies can sponsor prizes to get their name and product on people's minds. As these events grew more prominent over time, companies competed with each other to up the ante in terms of the number and dollar value of their prizes. The event starts to feel like a job fair x company challenge.

  2. People prioritize to maximize winnings: By maximizing winnings, this refers to trying to get as much prize money and free Google Home devices as possible. The enticing sponsored prizes attracts people who come to hackathons for the wrong reason. Teams gun to tick as many boxes as possible by using an API or service just so they can qualify for a special prize. People now start their ideation sessions with prompts like "What idea will get us X, Y, and Z prizes?" instead of "What am I curious about, and what do I want to learn and build on?".

  3. The spirit of hackathons gets lost: People are now prioritizing their projects for the dollar value of prizes and the clout of awards. There is a trend where more and more attendees no longer come in to learn and make memories. Teams are now arriving to hackathons fully formed, with an idea in hand, and a checklist of the prizes they want to win. It becomes a regular occurence to see teams building in buzzword spaces (ie "We're making Uber but with crypto and AR and also ML") and ripping off older projects that have won in the past. Projects start becoming repetitive and people stop being inspired on demo day. We see much fewer projects that are fun, novel, and high-risk. Ever seen one of these projects before? (hint: I've personally seen more than 5 of each)

  1. No more excitement: Once a rare group, veterans now dominate these events. These people have attended over 5 hackathons, and already know the ins and outs of these outings. People arrive, skip the opening ceremony, get the company swag, and start working on their hashed-out project idea. The novelty of these events has worn off, and attendees overall seem less excited, engaged and outgoing. Moreover, the original organizers of the most popular events have already moved on, leaving behind stewardship teams. It takes a much smaller activation energy to continue an event than to start it from scratch.

  2. Event saturation: Hackathons used to be a rarity, happening once every few months in Toronto. In 2019, we had around 10 going on each month, just in Toronto. Although it's great for making these events more accessible than ever, there seems to be so many hackathons that they divert a lot of the resources and attention that large events used to get. Companies are now way more reluctant to support local hackathons, and a general downsizing is occuring across the board.

With the advent of the Covid19 pandemic, even the in-person aspect (where memories are made!) has been taken away.

As someone who has made lifelong memories from attending over 40 hackathons, I'm saddened to see such an awesome opportunity decay to a state like this. The factors at play seem to be inevitable feedback loops, so I'm not too optimistic about the state of hackathons in the future.

What's next

I'm pretty certain that hackathons as we knew it are going to be die for good. Prepare to say goodbye to most of the large, extravagent events that you see on old youtube. Grab those fidget spinners and little swag trinkets while you can, because it looks like companies are already starting to realize that throwing money to promotions and sponsor prizes usually does not do much to promote their sales or talent pool. All one needs to do to confirm this is to walk along the sponsorship aisle of a hackathon that's been running for a few years. Comparing across a few years, there is usually a spike in sponsors by the third to 5th event before the tables gradually dwindle out over the years. For example, it was hard to navigate through PennApps III, as two sets of hallways over 50m long were chock full of eager companies vying to get new hires. Now the same section occupies at most half a length of hallway.

On the other hand, the downfall of giant hackathons may help retire the mindset of building short term and building for show. I think we'll see a rise in the more sustainable model of creating usable products for users that have real impact. During the pandemic I have already noticed a sharp increase in interest towards longer term ventures such as MVP labs, smaller-scale monthlong hackathons, and communal living arrangements / hackerhouses. Having done all of those recently, I can say for sure that I've learned a lot more, made better memories, and built more meaningful relationships than I have during my last 3 years attending hackathons. Some of the most proming projects, such as Gather Town, Fractal, LiPoker, and Dark Forest were all spawned from these events over the past year.

school 2.0

If you're looking to make friendships and great memories, there are other things that are better for that

If you were considering attending a hackathon, I'd still recommend you do them if you've never done them before. It's a totally unique situation where you get to build whatever, however, without needing to worry about the restrictions of real life. And there are still great moments to meet cool builders. I would warn against doing them repeatedly, since there is a diminishing return in terms of new experiences. As someone who is a lot more disenchanted from hackathons since the glory days, I would recommend you to look to participating in communal living arrangments and building longer-term personal projects. The world is big and there are many cooler things to do than hackathons these days!


An ex hackathoner