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What Is A "Hackathon"?

It's a great question, especially when the word itself starts off with those first 4 letters, "hack" - ALERT ALERT!

I have privileged to host a large number of hackathons in my time, with many more to come, and whilst they have been varied, diverse, and unique in many of their facets they do have a few things in common.

In a nutshell a hackathon is an event bringing people together that self-form into teams, work on a challenge, and present their workings in order to connect, learn, and share their skills and knowledge.

Some hackathons are free to attend - in fact the majority of hackathons in New Zealand are free to participants. They are supported by generous partners and sponsors that ensure there is an appropriate venue, the participants and volunteers are fed and watered throughout and all the "playdo" for the teams to weave their magic upon is made available.

Hackathons in New Zealand have tended to be over a weekend, with participants leaving on Saturday evening to return on Sunday and complete their work.  There are a few true 24 hour hackathons that go all through the night.

And a good sized hackathon is anything from 50 participants up to 150 - any more and the bureaucratic overhead tends to weight down these 'agile' events and move more into conference style get togethers - for those I would recommend looking a barcamp / unconference, the sibling event to hackathons. Remember a hackathon is a doing place whilst a barcamp is a talking space - neither is better, but they focus on different outcomes. I nickname both types of events Hui (barcamp) and Do-ey (hackathon) and they can play very nicely together.

Now, what is the outcome of hackathons? This is where I differ from the "product based" events where the goal is to produce a thing that will make a difference in the world. That's not to say the teams aren't focused on producing a "thing" (be that a mobile app, a web app, a video, a new policy) but hackathons I run use this task for the true outcome - popping bubbles, sharing knowledge, experimenting solutions against wicked problems, growing communities and having fun together. Of course a team may well produce the next Google, and all power to those that do, but it's not the one and only focus for the event.

To get yourself a hackathon you only need 6 elements:

  1. A purpose (expressed in a series of challenges perhaps)
  2. An identity (get yourself a name and a logo)
  3. A venue
  4. A date & time
  5. People
  6. "Playdo" (the stuff the people will be working with, Internet, data, APIs, pain points etc)

I won't go into the details of how to get those, suffice to say you nail these and you have an event.

As I say, a hackathon is a number of self-forming teams working to produce a "thing". Some people arrive at a hackathon in a ready made team, however many many more don't. At the start of all hackathons I facilitate an hour or so to find out who is in the room, what their passions are, what skills they bring to the table and then to help coalesce them into a team that has the best chance of making a "thing" that they will be most proud of. I always assume that nobody knows anyone else at the start of this process.

Oh, and teams are best when they are 3 - 5 (+-2) people. But the number doesn't actually matter as long as the team believes they have the skills to complete the event and product a "thing" to their satisfaction.

The "thing" that teams make may be merely shown to the rest of the attendees, they may win some prizes, or it may be the start of a journey. After the hackathon has finished, and we have all celebrated the work done, I ensure there is a graceful handover period for all teams - do they want to continue, are they looking to build a business, would a Startup Weekend be a good idea, maybe an introduction to a regional economic development agency - whatever the team believes they needs (and mostly it's, sign me up for the next one).

I have talked a lot about the "thing", and almost everyone does, however I want to reiterate that I don't believe the sole focus should be on the "thing", after all it is only 48 hours and to truly produce something world changing in such a short time is difficult at best. No, the focus is to not only experiment with potential solutions, but to learn, connect and be a part of a potentially new (to you) community.

Oh, and if you're a student they are excellent ways of getting involved with the real world, showcase your skills, and teamwork - great for your CV.

And that's why the events I focus upon take a 50:50 view of the world. 50% of participants should be those that can create a "thing", be they developers, designers, data experts. However, the other 50% should be those that understand the purpose, can express solutions to challenges, articulate real world pains. Together, they make for the most successful teams.

One last thing, if you're from a commercial company or government agency reading this and you'd like to get involved but can see what's in it for you - hows this:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
Margaret Mead
Hackathons are full to the brim of thoughtful, committed, talented citizens - be a part of it, watch them, join their team, and then hire them.

Or run your own because you too are about bringing change, either internally, to your industry, or to the world.