I’ve been a part of quite a few hackathons now: SocialDevCamp and Google Eco-Challenge hackathons where I served as one of the judges, ORDSessions and Day of Mobile where I participated, and BarCamp where I spectated. I’ve noticed so many great creations and products come out of them in such a short amount of time that I can no longer ignore them or write them off as geeks (myself included) just doing their thing.

So what do I think make hackathons great?

  • Meeting super talented people. I think participants in hackathons are in general, a self selecting group. People who can create, design, and build stuff want to participate. Those who can’t generally don’t. These participants are confident in their abilities to execute their ideas in a short timeframe. When looking for teammates, these people look for people with complimentary skills who can also execute. Companies like KeyLimeTie have found great iPhone app developers this way. I myself found a very talented designer for one of my projects when I awarded his team with the Best Design Award.
  • Scratching your own itch. Some use it as an excuse to build something they’ve always wanted to build, but never had the time to do. Others use the opportunity to learn a new technology they’ve been wanting to pick up. Those were certainly my excuses when I entered. I had always wanted to do mobile app development but never had a project.
  • Developing focus. When you don’t have a lot of time and the end goal is to show something that works, you quickly learn to get things done. You don’t have tons of meetings and endless debates on it. You come up with ideas, decide, and go. You also learn to be lean and agile. You just don’t have time to overarchitect your solution.
  • Being inspired. When code freeze is finally called, and the presentations begin, it’s always an exciting time. You get to see the fruits of labor of some of the most talented designers and developers in your community. The stuff that comes out of these tests of will are absolutely amazing. You can’t help but be inspired and motivated to up your level.
  • Winning great prizes. Although being able to bring an app to life in a short amount of time is its own reward, getting free shit is not a bad reason either. Ravi Singh, overall winner of the Day of Mobile hackathon walked away with a Google phone, a netbook, and a nice cash prize. Not bad for building something he enjoyed doing. Chad Paulson and I went home with cash. People at the Google Eco Challenge hackathon got Droids.

Outside my own experience, I think Facebook is a great case study of hackathons.

“The hackathon is a hallowed tradition at Facebook. It starts when someone in the course of any workday calls for a hackathon. This usually happens about once a month. Anyone except Zuck can call for one. They settle on a night, and over junk food, beer, and Red Bull, Facebook’s corps of engineers stays up all night coding. A hackathon has only two rules: the project has to be something cool and it couldn’t be something they’d normally work on. Once the sun comes up, they all go to breakfast somwhere together and then they crash the entire next day. All meetings on that day are canceled. [Zuckerberg] knows they could get the same production just working a normal day, and it wouldn’t screw up everyone’s sleep schedules. But he could never replicate this esprit de corps.”

- Sarah Lacy, Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good

Some of the things that have come out of these internal Facebook hackathons include:

  • Photos of You and Your Friends
  • AJAX in place Wall posts
  • Facebook on Nintendo Wii
  • Facebook Chat
  • Internationalization
  • Type ahead search
  • Friend Suggester
  • Desktop Notifications

I would encourage any designer or developer to be a part of these things if they’ve never done it or heard of it. I also would encourage companies to consider trying out internal hackathons for their own gain or sponsoring hackathons as a way to find great talent.

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