Why Hackathons deserve more of our attention

If you visited Princeton’s campus this past Easter weekend, you might have seen hundreds of college students working around the clock as they built unique projects from scratch in a mere thirty-six hours. While this could describe frantic engineering students trying to complete last minute work, it is in fact a competition: Princeton’s spring semester hackathon, HackPrinceton. For those who are unaware, a hackathon is an event where individuals, often computer programmers, develop projects in a short period of time, usually over the span of a weekend. Participants can also try and develop novel and useful pieces of software or hardware. Over the last decade, hackathons have become increasingly popular as a tool to generate ideas, practice teamwork, and even create friendly, competitive environments, and their merits can benefit a plethora of organizations, beyond the average software development company or university.

First off, hackathons are innovation powerhouses. The relatively short timespan in which they occur helps push through ideas that may have been otherwise ignored. More importantly, the ambience of hackathons is separate enough from the rigidity of a work environment that participants can let loose their creative side. Without the pressure to conform to work behavior, they can explore offbeat, sometimes wacky ideas that may end up being truly useful. I do want to stress that hackathons are not goldmines for the next great miracle product or idea since most of the time, projects from hackathons are abandoned afterwards, and are at best used as starting point to spur further development. However, it is worthy to mention that hackathons can certainly streamline the dissemination of ideas across a company to upper-level management or entirely different branches within a firm.

Secondly, hackathons serve as unique settings in which teams can be formed from diverse groups within an organization. Fostering cross-disciplinary contact and cooperation in a small group setting could afford an invaluable opportunity to promote company cohesion and open further lines of communication within a workplace. Furthermore, they encourage involvement in the workplace beyond the normal workweek, and if implemented well, hackathons can be seen as fun benefits to being part of an organization. Pursuing alternate ideas at home or afterhours might not be the typical person’s idea of fun, but when motivated by the prospect of free food and monetary prizes, perspectives can change rapidly.

In addition, hackathons are adaptable. They do not conform to a single style: some may last a few hours while others take place over the course of several days. One hackathon could be designed as a sprint in which sleep is a luxury, and another could be directed with comfort in mind, where participants receive massages after enjoying a karaoke break. Hackathons come in all forms, and it’s up to the host group to decide among a myriad of styles what fits them best. For instance, an aerospace engineering firm might host a hackathon for its engineers to design the next generation of airplanes; competition categories could include hypersonic craft and/or environmentally conscientious designs. On the other hand, a marketing firm might choose to focus the competition on how to best reach client company X’s target audience or open the event to employees creating their dream ad pitch for a business they might have never worked with. In the end, hackathons are what we make of them, and can and should be changed to fit the organization at hand.

All these reasons contribute to the large number of people attending hackathons time and time again. Although hackathons may have started as a particularly technical competition, the hackathon model can be adapted to fit the needs of any group and are no longer constrained to purely technical creations. I am confident that similarly spirited events will continue to pop up and help organizations, across a wide variety of disciplines, mobilize their underlying potential for innovation in the workforce. It is past time that we recognize hackathons don’t just belong to seasoned programmers- they ought to belong to the architects and the advertisers and the fashion designers too. Hackathons are for everyone.