Give enough monkeys enough typewriters and they’ll eventually write the complete works of Shakespeare.
On the other hand, give enough coders enough pizza and a decent network connection, and they’ll make magic in a weekend.
Hackathons are huge in the tech world. They’re not only where game-changing ideas are born, but great opportunities for participants to make a name for themselves, and maybe land new employment too.
The concept of the hackathon is pretty straightforward. A gifted group gets together to create something, whether it’s a killer app, versatile API or another type of program or hack. That’s nothing new for most coders and engineers, who rely on their collaborative skills to solve problems and set up solutions.
But then there’s the added pressure of pitching the product to an audience – and potentially a panel of judges. Did we mention they’re usually competitions? Oh, and also all that pressure to perform comes at the end of a gruelling, sleepless weekend spent trying to thrash out a working prototype to meet a tight deadline. Hope there’s a coffee place next door.
The history of the hackathon
Hackathons began life as informal gatherings of geeks, who hacked programs together to shape the fledgling world wide web during the mid-to-late 1990s.
Once larger developers had turned their attention to upgrading the online environment, the hackathon took on more of a ‘gold rush’ feel. Talented tech experts banded together with producers and project managers to create the apps and software that would sell.
And so the hackathon became one of the biggest events on the tech calendar, complete with a massive degree of exposure for successful pitches, products, and people.
A typical hackathon event takes place over a 24- or 48-hour period. Once teams are briefed on the project, there may be a quick workshop session to run through some tips and tricks. Then there’ll be an ideas meeting which kicks off the process of developing a new product or solution. After some planning we get to the ‘thon’ bit of the hackathon, where participants plug in and pump out some serious code.
Once the time runs out, the groggy crew reconvenes for a mission debriefing. And if the event is organised this way, it’ll be just in time for the presentation to a panel of judges. Can their finished product hold it together? Can they?
You won’t often get a 100% completed project before the end of a hackathon, but it can sometimes be the start of something special.
A hackathon hosted at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in 2010 brought the beginnings of an app called Grouply. The communications app went from strength to strength, accruing word-of-mouth as quickly as it did investors. After a quick name change to GroupMe, the app was purchased by Skype – itself a new member of the Microsoft family – for a figure believed to be $80 million.
And at a 2012 event held in Singapore, Lucas Ngoo and Quek Siu Rui pitched an app for decluttering homes by selling unwanted items. Carousell won first prize and gathered investment over the next few years, culminating in a $1.5bn valuation in the summer of 2021 – and that mythical unicorn status.
What we love about hackathons – apart from the unlimited snacks and caffeine, of course – is seeing a room full of talented programmers, designers and more, pulling together to create something brand new out of thin air. As tech brands like Meta, Microsoft and Google run equivalent events, it’s with one eye on employee engagement and another on recruiting the raw talent on show.
It’s even become a roundabout way for recruiters to showcase themselves as a conduit for coders – holding a hackathon and inviting companies to their showroom. It’s easier to gauge prospects’ passion for programming through a hosted event than it is to sit together in a stuffy, stifling job interview, right?
Interested in throwing your own hackathon? Look out for our top tips in a future post, based on our learnings in the events space so far.