Skip to main content

This Lockdown DOES Feel Different

Hackathons - Are They Just Free Labour For Corporates And Government Agencies?

This was Victoria, a close friend of mine, tweeting recently about how frustrating it is to be constantly asked to do work for free. And she's not alone, as you can already see it was Don Christie exclaiming similar that caused Vic to reply:
And he was responding to the UK Computer Weekly article Government launches GovTech competition [May 10th, 2018] in which it is states:
Those who are successful will be awarded up to £50,000 to develop their ideas, and those providing the “best potential solutions” will then be given research and development (R&D) contracts with up to £500,000 to create prototypes of their products, which will then be available for public sector buyers.
And so, you have the background to this article and the question, "Hackathons - Are They Just Free Labour For Corporates And Government Agencies?"

In essence, Yes and No.
(who didn't see that coming!)


Let's go with the No first of all. No, hackathons (and to a degree other similar programmes such as accelerators, StartUp Weekends, Design Jams and the plethora of hip and cool events) do not provide free labour.

Those that volunteer (for free), to such events should always go into them with their eyes wide open. The $ value for participating may end up being zero, or, if you add in potential lost earnings and opportunity costs, in the negative. Anyone that tells you otherwise is lying. And if that's not for you, then DO NOT ATTEND  / APPLY. Seriously, value yourself higher and do not get involved.

However, for hackathons particularly, there is more to those few days than merely working during those few days. You may want to extend your networks, you may wish to work on particular problem alongside people and not just on your own, you might be starting on a new career and want to gain experience, to be in an environment where all the experts and helpers are to hand, you may even just do it for fun. Whatever your reason, whatever the value people find they need to be clear what it is.

For developers I wrote an article for the now sleeping ATLabs blog, Engaging civic-minded developers [October 12, 2016}, about how some are not motivated by $ but by 3 other drivers - in summary:
So how do you engage with developers, how do we grow the pool of ‘civic developers’, by ensuring we let them show off (on their own terms), bring them interesting and like-minded people to play with and supply new, even exclusive, data and resources.
No-one wants to work for free, but everyone wants to grow, make a difference and solve problems.

So, no it's never free labour, there is always some payment which may not be in cold hard dollars.


Ok, so why the Yes answer to "Hackathons - Are They Just Free Labour For Corporates And Government Agencies?" Mike? The Yes comes down to the approach taken by the company or the agency that is behind the event. And the most illuminating way you can check out the real deal is to look at the "challenge" (called many other things, opportunities, focus areas, themes ...)

There are 3 types of challenges:

Too high level

I was in the first R9 Accelerator and our team was given the challenge, "Make government procurement better for business". Sure, why not, maybe we'll also sort out the environment, trolls online, and even why my cat sicks up all the time. As it happens we chose exactly the point where these "competitions" and "events" and "alternative ways of choosing vendors" come in - Cambio was way ahead of itself.

These challenges make for good event titles, but are so broad and so wide ranging it leaves you thinking the agency/company hasn't really though through what the hell they're doing. And that is rude - if they can't put the effort in why the hell should anyone else.

Just right level

It's a problem that has multiple identified pains, some sense of an audience that would benefit from it being resolved and there are a million ways it could happen. I always ask if everyone at a hackathon tackled the same challenge (it never happens) would that be ok - and if the answer is yeah then it's probably at the right level.

Too detailed

And this is the killer one. The, "We have this specific problem,we have these systems/data sets and we think the problem is an app that does ..." - WOAH! That's your job, that's business as usual, that's why you get paid and have an IT section, and designers, and ... that's fucking rude to ask volunteers to work on, FOR FREE!


And so you can see, through the three levels the underlying approach agencies or companies can express:

  1. We don't really know anything - you do it for us
  2. We have a problem, we need help - let's work together
  3. We are too busy - you do it for us
Another hint that I use when organising hackathons to devine how much of their own people are excited, keen to be involved and want to not only make it happen but be a part of the teams during the event. If it's not at least 50% then there is another indicator that they're not really into it and just want cheap labour.

But let's return briefly to Vic and Don's actual issue - the calling upon and use of professional / paid people to do work for free. I have never advocated this, it is both rude and abuse of a power dynamic. All attendees to any hackathon I run attend as themselves and never ever represent the organisation they happen to work for - this is made clear to all, especially those that work at the organising agency or company. If I happen to work at Agency X, and this agency decides to run a hackathon to which I think I would find it interesting to attend (for whatever personal reason) then I go along as Mike, and not "Mike from Agency X". Of course I bring internal knowledge, experiences and skills - that's fine, but I am NOT representing Agency X and they have no say in my participation.

And so, if an organisation approaches another to ask for people to attend / support a hackathon all that they can hope for is that a general notice goes up and individuals can act as they see fit. Stop asking for OptimalBI, Catalyst, or whatever company to provide attendees/supporters as, "Mike from Company Y" - that's NOT how it works.

UNLESS everyone gets paid the same rate ... and that will never happen ;)
It would be interesting to see what model the "competition" takes as highlighted by the article - maybe it's a hackathon, or perhaps even a 3 month accelerator programme.


Finally - what happens on the Monday?
Assuming your thing happens over a weekend then Monday is the key day - what happens afterwards. If you run a 3 month programme then what happens the first week post the "Pitch Event".

If someone is looking at an event and cannot get a clear sense of the paths, support, on-going work that happens "on the Monday after" then I would advise that person not to be involved.


There you have it - people will work for free if you give them the value they want, but organisations need to be honest and clear about what it is they are asking for.

And that's my job - to guide both parties to an event that works for BOTH!

Comments