Hackathons for the rest of us

Think you're ready to participate in your first hackathon or host one? Learn the ground rules and let the fun begin.

When Moshe Tamssot walked out of a Chicago hackathon in August 2010, he had a new business and a new business partner.

Most hackathon attendees go just to have fun, of course, and that's been enough to establish hackathons as a part of tech culture. While the likes of Google and Facebook have used them to promote their APIs and entire 'ecosystems,' smaller firms are also adopting hackathons -- and swear by the results.

Chief attributes

Hackathons, of course, are organized marathon hacking sessions with rules, goals and prizes. Conceptually, they are reminiscent of county fairs, except what's submitted to the judges was created during the event. Hackathon organizers could be hoping to get developers to play with a new interface they are introducing, or write apps for a new phone they are producing -- or the idea might be to just have fun, with no particular agenda.

Sponsors are typically corporations, user groups or student organizations. Prizes are often awarded for best design or best use of technology. The word "hackathon" can be traced to 1999, but sources agree that the practice itself goes back at least another decade.

Hackathons can be divided into two main types: live (where participants come together at a set place for a scheduled period) and virtual (where the event is held online usually over the course of a month), says Peter Morano, who has produced about two dozen live hackathons in the Chicago area over the past three years. By day he is the director of technology at TrainSignal Inc., an IT training firm.

Morano, however, discounts virtual hackathons, complaining that they don't generate any excitement or sense of community.

Hackathons otherwise can also be divided into internal and public types. Internal hackathons involve only employees of a particular enterprise, while public hackathons are open to all comers.

Internal hackathons, explains Morano, are intended to encourage members of the rank-and-file to bring their ideas to the forefront. "The people standing at the whiteboard coming up with the ideas are not necessarily the people with the best ideas, and they want to hear from those who would not normally be heard from," he says.

"They work 8 to 5 on their assignments backlog, but in the back of their heads they have great ideas that they never have time to work on," adds Basharat Wani, director of software development at the Blacksburg, Va., location of cloud computing vendor Rackspace Inc. The facility holds a 24-hour internal hackathon about every six months. Of the 80 engineers at the facility, about half participate, he notes.

For either kind of hackathon, the producer sets the award categories and provides prizes, a meeting space (often a cafeteria-like setting) with Wi-Fi and often projection screens and food that is available throughout the session (pizza is the typical fare).

Participants provide their own technology, sometimes wheeling in high-end systems with multiple displays. The participants are also expected to bring their own software tools and any other technology they intend to use. It's assumed that participants haven't built anything prior to the start of the event, when they receive the judging guidelines.

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