Don’t Attend a Hackathon

ATX Hack for Change

This past weekend was our third annual ATX Hack for Change. It was still hosted at St Edwards University, but this time it was organized by the City of Austin’s Innovation Office. While Kerry O’Connor is the Chief Innovation Officer, her staff ran much of the show over the weekend. I was lucky enough to be invited to serve as MC for the second year and represented

Overall, the event was great. The attendance, the vibe, the projects, the demos, and the food made an event that I am proud to have been a small part of.

Doing something clever at a hackathon is great but impacting and potentially saving lives is something else entirely.

The thing that struck me was after the event when I saw this tweet:


It’s not relevant who said it, I’m more concerned about the sentiment.

At many hackathon/startup-building events, there’s always that person. They have the “greatest idea” and know exactly how it should be built but since they’re not a developer, they don’t know how. In fact, they often utter something like:

“I just need a developer to build it.”

If you’re a developer and hear someone say that, run away. Quickly.

If you’re non-technical and have said that, go home.

This is a dangerous person to work with. Here’s what they’re really saying:

“Even though I don’t know how to code, I know exactly what needs to be done. In fact – as the idea person – my part of the project is much more important than yours. You are easily replaceable and are unlikely to bring any value to the project. Give me the code and move along.” 

And all of that boils down to simple truths:

  • They don’t want you on the team, you are their free labor.
  • They don’t want your experience, they know what needs to be done.
  • They don’t want your creativity, you are to follow their directions.
  • They don’t want your understanding, they just want their code.

At hackathons, there will be people with a variety of knowledge, skills, and abilities. You will overlap with some and complement others. It is your opportunity to learn, experiment, and fail with minimal risk. You won’t lose your job. You won’t lose credibility with colleagues. You won’t waste weeks or months on a dead-end project.

The only thing at risk is a day or two of effort.

If you attend a hackathon with a preconceived notion of recruiting a team to build your Vision, on your terms, for your benefit, you’re doing it wrong. Instead, you should attend to learn more about the skills and understanding you need or that you need to hire for in your team.

And if you’re really lucky, you’ll find one of those people to hire.

Update: If you’re looking for some ideas on how to approach a hackathon the Right Way, check out my post called “Howto: Be Successful at a Hackathon.”

8 thoughts on “Don’t Attend a Hackathon

  1. This is really great advice! I have never been to a hackathon and was wondering if you know of any others in Austin that you’d recommend? I’d love to have gone to this one but are there any others coming up?

    1. Not any fullblown hackathons off the top of my head, but I run AustinHacks – – and spread the word on any that I hear about.

      There’s a Civic Hack Night tonight and Cafe Beduoins every Tuesday at Houndstooth North.

  2. I had a similar experience when I attended a hackathon in Paraguay. I did not know anybody attending and was assigned to a group of four CS students. None of them had ever programmed but their professor told them to go to the event to get some experience. At least one of them was able to design a logo for our project 😉

  3. I recommend we developers sincerely consider our goals and commitment prior to attending hackathons. Further, we should be transparent with non-development team members.

    Hacakthons push me to develop my skills, think quickly, exchange ideas and techniques, and expose me to new problems that could use solutions.

    The main problem I’ve had is along the lines of being free labor. After every hackathon, I’ve been asked to stay on the teams to help develop the ideas and projects for start up funding on the promise of future proceeds.

    The idea people have invested time, sometimes years, in their ideas and are on paths to bringing their ideas into production. Usually they need technical people to bring those ideas into reality. However, I have a full-time day job, a mortgage, and a family with five kids. I can’t give 20-40 hours/week to these startups with no guarantee of compensation.

    Therefore, I need to learn to tell hackathon project teams that I can’t join resulting startup projects for free.

    Thank you for taking the time and energy to publish this blog post.

  4. Good for you for talking out loud about this. I thought a Hackathon or a Startup Weekend was a place where entrepreneurial-minded people come together to build something amazing over a short period of time. Even if your idea is not a winner, everyone wins because you work together and learn from each other. That was what I thought, and have experienced an amazing Startup Weekend near Toronto a year ago. We are all still friends.

    Last weekend I attended another Startup Weekend and was so excited about the prospect of it but was shattered by it. Even if my idea wasn’t chosen, I wanted to work with a bunch of people intensively for an entire weekend and see what we can come up with. I just had a horrible experience being outcast from a group that had pre-formed prior to the event, but didn’t really realize this at first. They needed a designer they said and I loved their idea. We hadn’t even introduced ourselves, still all sitting around the table discussing the name of the concept when two guys asked me to go outside with them. They said they all went to school together (the location was York University, north of Toronto) and they just wanted to work together with each other. It took me a while to figure out they wanted me to leave without blatantly saying it.

    I was gobsmacked! Took me a minute or two to process. We all spoke english but I was a different nationality too, I’m not prejudiced about anything ever, so I get blindsided when I am discriminated against. Quickly trying to recover I approached other groups – it was late, too late as it turned out, many had already formed and said they were saturated with my skill-set. Totally deflated I attended for a while the next day and asked if I could sit in with a few groups but I was excluded. I have bruises but I do believe after the bruising heals it will just fuel me more to continue to try. I hope so anyway.

    I am just reading other stories this morning of other startup weekends that went awry and realize I am not the only one. Shameful because our tickets specifically ask for inclusion of all people. I’ve met the kind of people you described in your blog and have realized you need to stay clear of them. Especially if we are volunteering our time all weekend, I want to enjoy the journey too, so I agree with your advice to stir clear of them.

    Now what about groups that have already formed, why do they come to Startup Weekend? For the venue? Why can’t we all just play in the same sandbox? Support each other and promote each other?

    1. Jesus christ Karen that sounds like a horrible experience. It makes hackathons sound like a joke. “Your free labor is not good enough for us!” ugh i am f*ing revolted by this idea.

  5. The one point everyone seems to be dismissing is that the ideas are voted on and the best ideas are moved forward. That in itself gives the originator of the idea a very big leeway on how the idea should be implemented because it is HIS/HER vision that has been given the vote of confidence. You can think of how Steve Jobs very much controlled a lot of aspects in the creation of the ipod and iphone even though he did not code and design them himself. YET Steve Jobs is idolized…… There is no room and there should be no toleration for idea guys looking for free labor, that is for sure. And as a group effort everyone should have ownership of the end product. But in the end regardless if the idea was from a techie or non-techie the originator should have the most control over the direction.

  6. These are some good points, especially for the newer developer. Sadly, except perhaps for the free labor, I find these issues increasingly relevant to the real world as well.

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