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December 4, 2013

Should you go to hackathons?

By shutterstock_133146497_feat

Everyone from Ford to Coca-Cola is having hackathons these days. There are hackathons for food and politics, immigration reform and healthcare. In the tech world, they’ve become a staple of developer relations. But how useful are they to developers, and are they all equally useful? Before you invest time and travel money, make sure you know what you can get out of a hackathon that you wouldn’t get by sitting in your usual spot for the same amount of time, coding away.

For one thing, a hackathon gives you time to code without being interrupted; sometimes getting out of the office is the only way to make sure of that. And you may be less likely to get distracted (by TV or Twitter or other projects) when you have a time limit and you’re with other developers working on similar things.

Plus there’s the networking.

The perks

If you’re at a startup or you code in your spare time, you may not spend much time with other coders who have the same enthusiasm as you, or you might want to get up to speed with a new platform or technology that none of your colleagues have tried. You can throw yourself in at the deep end and see how much you can achieve, and at a good hackathon you’ll have access to resources to help you with that, from experts in the technology — which might include other participants in the hackathon.

If you’re learning a new technology, meeting people who know it well is a great opportunity. You can often find the same people online, on Twitter or in developer communities, and ask them questions. But for a knotty problem, it’s nearly always easier to dig into something face-to-face. Plus if you’ve met someone at a hackathon it’s easier to get their attention, or to gauge how useful their advice will be.

The social side of a hackathon can be very valuable, too — the buzz of being in the same place as lots of other people who are all having fun coding, the contacts you make, or just being able to get another pair of eyeballs to look at the bug you’re stuck on are all great. But take care if a hackathon sounds more like a party or a pitch-fest than a chance to do some coding; meetups and drinkups are fun, but they’re not always the best place to get technical information.

Know before you go

There are some questions you should ask (beyond “do I want to stay up all night or should I book a hotel room?”). Think about why you’re going and what you want to get out of it. Do you want to go to a geeky slumber party or a professional event? Do you want structure or time to play with code? If you’re using a hackathon as a way to get started with a technology, are there any formal presentations or tutorials? Will you carry on getting information after the event? Do you need to join a developer network to get further resources or support, and is there a cost for that?

If it’s a hackathon run by a software vendor (or a hardware company), will it only focus on their technology or will it look at how to integrate with other frameworks, services and platforms? Who is going to be there; will it the team that builds the library or service you want to work with, the developer relations team that looks after it or the marketing folks who want to get you using it?

More broadly, what are the people running the hackathon aiming to get out of it: publicity, community involvement, specific solutions, more people using the tool or service in question or a better understanding of how developers use their stuff and where they can improve it? Any or all of those might be useful for you as well, but you need to know which it is. While the last reason sounds like you’re being used as a guinea pig, it’s also a great chance to give your opinion to the folks that might be able to do something about it. If you’re there to learn, finding bugs in an API isn’t as much of a problem as it is if you’re hoping to make money from what you build at the hackathon.

Find out when the experts will be available. If you’re coding all night, you don’t want to have to wait until the next morning to ask about problems you’ve run into with a service. If the hackathon is run alongside a conference, are the experts having to step out to give their sessions?

Hackathons focused on specific solutions can be over-optimistic. It’s important to be realistic about what you can achieve in a day or two. You won’t become an expert in a new technology and you won’t be able to create a polished app from start to finish. If a hackathon is a chance to work with government or city information, remember you’ll need domain experts to help you tell the difference between causation and correlation (do most problems really occur on a Wednesday or is that just when they’re reported?).

Commercial hackathons

Commercial hackathons often offer benefits beyond a couple of beers and all-night pizza, from access to tools you might otherwise have to pay for to the occasional gadget giveaway to app competitions that promise cash prizes and marketing opportunities. But you have to weigh up those benefits against the cost of your time and any terms and conditions that apply to the winners. Who are the judges and what are they looking for: great apps or apps that use their product well? Is the prize dependant on you continuing to work on the app until it gets approved by an app store? Will the marketing be a blog post by the sponsors highlighting the competition winners or something more substantial? Are you tied to working with a specific service or platform exclusively or can you use it as a springboard to support the services and platforms that work best for you and your app?

Most important, are you being asked to build something that benefits you, or that benefits the organization running the hackathon? (And which of those is what you want to do?)

That’s something to ask even if there isn’t a competition and you’re treating a hackathon as a chance to learn the technologies on offer. No two hackathons are quite alike, and you may not want the same thing out of it as the developer splitting a pizza with you, let alone the organizers. Make sure you can get at least some of what you want out of the hackathon you’re interested in. And remember to plan ahead; you don’t want to waste time installing tools you could have loaded up and got familiar with a few days before.

About the Author

has been a technology journalist for over two decades, and she’s been the formal or informal IT admin for most of the offices she’s worked in along the way. She was delighted to see the back of Netware 3.11, witnessed the AOL meltdown first-hand the first time around when she ran the AOL UK computing channel, and has been a freelance tech writer ever since. She's used every version of Windows (client and server) and Office released, and every smartphone too. Her favourite programming language is Prolog, giving her a soft spot for Desired State Configuration in PowerShell 4. And yes, she really does wear USB earrings. Find her on Twitter @marypcbuk.

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