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.

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"Stress reveals character, it does not create character," Tamssot adds. "A hackathon, meanwhile, breeds the culture that the last minute is the best minute, for those who love the rush of adrenaline."

While the entrants usually organize themselves, in some cases playing matchmaker for the participants is the main point of the event.

For instance, POV, the long-running PBS documentary program, holds periodic two-day hackathons to explore the ways technology can be used for storytelling. "We are giving technologists access to filmmakers, and giving those storytellers access to technologists," says Adnaan Wasey, POV's digital director. POV plays matchmaker with applicants, who might not have met prior to the event.

Wholesale adoption

An example of an enterprise that has integrated hackathons into its business practices is Dropbox Inc. in San Francisco. The cloud storage and file synchronization firm has two hackathons per year, each a week long, explains software engineer Max Belanger.

"Everyone in the firm was given five full days to tackle any project they want," Belanger explains. "You can work on your own or in a team, and the only rule is that by participating you have to be willing to present your work." Since participation involves prestige that comes with recognition, employees take part willingly, he says.

The event, called Hack Week, is held in January and again during the summer. As many as 300 employees participate, and they are encouraged to commit to a project in the weeks leading up to the hackathon. If materials are needed, they are handled on a case-by-case basis through the usual corporate procurement process, he adds.

During the hackathon food is available 24 hours a day, but participants aren't expected to work through the night.

Even the CEO has been known to commit to a project, and the sales department will also participate, typically creating a sales tool, Belanger says. The Dropbox password-strength meter and its two-party authentication process originated from Hack Week, he adds.

Intellectual property issues

But with random people being asked to create something original and useful, what if they actually succeed? The issue of intellectual property (IP) appears to be a gray area.

Margaret Hagan, a Pittsburgh resident and a Stanford law school student, says she had been to six public hackathons in the last year without hearing any discussion of IP. "The worst case is that there has been no serious discussion of IP, funding does come through and team members start coming out of the woodwork," she says. "There needs to be a frank conversation about the ramifications of going forward."

Morano shrugs off the issue. "I have never encountered a situation where IP was in doubt," he says. "But as soon as you ask people to sign something with legalese, a huge proportion will not show up. They are supposed to give up a weekend to have fun, not bring lawyers into it. Anyway, most of the stuff that comes out of a hackathon is not commercially viable, and will require months of additional work."

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