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Hackathons: Proof That Ideas Are Cheap and Implementation Is Expensive

Sponsors host hackathons for reasons ranging from using the event as a hiring fair, to looking for ideas, to road testing APIs and documentation. Our recent hackathon was driven by the latter motivations, and the fixed date of the event brought a needed urgency to get our docs and APIs cleaned up and made ready for public, rather than just internal, consumption.

But what's really in it for developers? To get greater clarity, I called Steve Perry and Areion Azimi, two members of the team that won the top prize at the  TV Hackfest London, to get the developer perspective:

What got you to enter the hackathon and what were you looking for?

Steve: I was looking for a day of something different. Working full-time for a company, you're always on the same products. When I saw this hackathon advertised, I thought it was an opportunity to work on different ideas, new concepts.

Areion: At hackathons, developers come together in a 12- or 24-hour timespan to create useful products that address an industry need or a market gap. The time crunch adds an element of excitement but also forces teams to strip out a lot of the inefficiencies that make people unproductive when working in a team setting (deferred decision making, paralysis by over-analysis, and so on). Hackathons also give developers a chance to learn about new or popular open source frameworks, APIs, and plugins. It also gives them a chance to apply their learning in a collaborative and supportive environment. They leverage each other's individual strengths and skill sets to efficiently allocate work required to build the product.

What were you expecting from the hackathon sponsors and organizers?

Steve: For APIs to play with. Having the sponsors give a brief to developers, providing targets and a timeframe to work towards. And to meet others — that was a key reason to join. Also, to test myself and compare my level and abilities with others.

What is your message to the people who run hackathons in the future? What would you like (besides better pizza)?

Steve: Organization is key. The one we entered was really good, but it was a bit vague on the concept. I hadn't been to one before, so I didn't know what to expect. I thought there would be some rules. Especially important is reliable Wi-Fi!

Areion: From a networking perspective, hackathons are fantastic as most are sponsored by brand names that provide guidance, tech, or other resources to attendees. Thus, developers can learn about industries and companies they may not have gotten exposure to in other settings. Developers also get to wrap their heads around problems businesses are facing in their respective industries and offer fresh perspectives and solutions to these problems.

Developers also benefit from the perks! Free food, free clothes, free vouchers (subscription trials, etc.) form the bulk of the goodies at hackathons…not to mention, big cash prizes and invitations into accelerator programs.

Could you discuss how ideas are turned into reality, and the amount of freedom or the amount of direction that should be provided to seed and nurture the development process?

Areion: Hackathons are about the people and the experience of building something totally out of creative inspiration in a very short 12–24-hour timespan. People put aside their egos, forget about titles and delegating, don't think about equity or forming a business, and just get on with developing a great product.

Regardless of whether the product evolves into something that can be bought and sold in the market, or ends up in the back alleys of BitBucket or GitHub, hackathons are really all about the people you meet and get to work with. They form an integral part to the start-up ecosystem and are an important networking aspect in the developer community.

The Takeaway

Readers might wonder what can really be achieved in 48 hours. If you can truly build a compelling proposition in two days, even something really simple, then why is the regular development process so inefficient? Should we throw out planning, specs, and testing and just provide an environment fueled by caffeine and pizza?

There's the rub. The gap between an enthusiastic pitch (and even a working demo at the end of a hackathon) and a consumer-ready app is substantial. It's clear that you can get to 80% of what looks like a product in a fraction of the time it takes to do the remaining 20%. All those small issues are glossed over in the demo.

In a way, hackathons confirm the old adage that ideas are cheap, but implementation is expensive. Which we already know; it's precisely why that idea on the to-do list for the last 18 months hasn't seen any implementation yet. Maybe next spring…

Anthony Rose is the cofounder and CTO of zeebox, a company that provides a free app to help you discover, connect, share, and interact with others as you watch TV.

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