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Hackathons are NOT competitions

In all good hackathons there has to be a range of organisations supporting the event.

The finest supporters are those that directly contribute to the attendees at the event - ensuring the WiFi is top notch, paying for the coffee, laying on specialised data, making available technical gurus, or even lending mana to the event and supporting by "being there".

Companies and individuals that focus their support on the attendees and their needs are to be praised above all.

Over the past few years I have noticed a growing number of hackathons (not so much barcamps / unconferences) have been focusing their support / sponsorship on providing prizes - be that cold hard cash, meetings with Ministers, a chance to pitch to a mythical group of moneybags, or even "a chance to go on to greater things".

"Yeah, your point is Mike?" ... simply this, why are hackathons changing into competitions? At no point in the general definition of a hackathon is it a "must" that prizes are to be given.

Don't get me wrong, an event MUST have a strong and focussed ending and a "show-n-tell" is a perfect example of such an ending. Every hackathon I run also has a fierce focus on, "What happens on the Monday after?" which is the catalyst for the graceful handover that I learnt whilst running Hack Miramar back in the day.

So one cannot simply ring a gong after the allotted hours and tell everyone just to go home, even if that's exactly what nearly everyone wants to do.

"Aha, but you've got to give some reward to the people turning up, or they won't even bother" ... bullshit. If your hackathon is so focussed upon having people do work for free and throwing a scrap of money to a very very small percentage of those people I believe you are focussed on the wrong things. People come to hackathons for many reason, money is rarely the driver (see my "Engaging Civic-Minded Developers" post for examples)

Look, I don't have a problem with the ending of your hackathon involving some recognition of the work done - as I say the show-n-tell is a key part of the event where the teams can stand proud before their peers and guests elucidating what they did, how they did it and what they like to do next (heck, if you want make it as "pitch" with an actual 'ask' and start the graceful handover yourself - everyone loves someone that's going somewhere).

I also believe rewarding teams is good - but it's NOT the focus of a hackathon. It IS the focus of a competition. It CAN BE the focus of a challenge. It IS what we expect at work. It is NOT the raison d'etre of a hackathon.

If you're going to reward the teams and their work my question to you is, what about all those that don't win; how will you explicitly reward them for turning up? By all means have as many categories as you want to cover everyone, "Best In Show", "People's Choice", "Spirit Of The Event", "Most Innovative Use Of Lego"  - reward away, with cold hard cash as donated by an organisation ... but it's not a competition with ONE winner ... we call them COMPETITIONS.

One last thing - if the prize is donated by an organisation to work on a specific problem statement I believe you are tiptoeing down the fine line of providing cheap / free labour. Be very careful about this approach.

If it all gets too confusing, you are overwhelmed by offers of cash, or you simply don't believe you have an event without prizes then remember, a laser beam focus on what the attendees want is your guide. Put yourself into their shoes, ask yourself, "If I don't win the first prize', what do I want?"

I help people, organisations, and agencies that need to engage with communities in order to solve hard problems - I do this using the hackathon framework. Contact me if this is you.