Hackathon is a portmanteau of the words “hack” and “marathon”. The marathon part is pretty simple, the hackathon runs over a limited but relatively long time period and participants have to make do with the time restrictions. Despite the word “hack”, a hackathon doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with cyber security. The word “hack” actually sticks to the wider meaning of: “making something do something it wasn’t designed to do”.
A hackathon is an event where participants spend their time developing an idea into a prototype or even a fully-fledged product. Depending on the hackathon there may be a specific topic or participants may be able to choose their own concept freely. Participants can work in groups or alone. At the end of the hackathon, each group presents their work.
Hackathons in open-source projects
The first hackathon was run by OpenBSD an open-source Linux distribution in 1999. Hackathons for open-source projects tend to revolve around solving large or many long-standing issues. For example, refactoring code is a long process with minimal direct benefit as no new functionality is added, however, it can make the code a lot easier to maintain in the future. Participants may also split off to resolve many smaller but long-standing issues. Alternatively, they might work on adding entirely new functionality.
One of the difficulties of open-source content is that the maintainers don’t necessarily get paid. While a hackathon certainly doesn’t necessarily resolve this issue it can help to bring in a particularly positive team attitude and potentially draw in interest from non-core contributors.
Internal corporate hackathons
Some companies run internal hackathons. These are typically optional but are generally viewed positively as a fun team-building exercise. A department-sized hackathon might focus on quickly developing a product in a similar method to the sprint methodology, these may be known as code sprints. If the hackathon is open to the whole company, however, there may be no specific theme. Participants can be free to choose their own projects. Generally, there has to be some connection to work but it doesn’t mercenarily have to be product features. For example, a participant could create an internal automation tool to simplify their workflow or develop new internal tooling and functionality. Of course, projects may also end up being customer facing being turned into products.
Internal hackathons are often a good way for people to work on projects that wouldn’t necessarily get direct approval but can nevertheless provide value. Some companies may work with appropriate project creators to patent their creations.
Sponsored venture capital hackathons
Some hackathons are basically marketing stunts. Companies can sponsor or create an open event, encouraging people to participate in its hackathon. Often participation is encouraged by featuring monetary prizes for the “winners” as chosen by a panel of sponsoring judges. Generally, the idea is to provide an environment where people are provided with motivation to develop their project idea. Good ideas that catch the eye of the judges are often fully marketable products. The developers of the project may win a reward for their efforts. Particularly well-liked projects may be bought up by one of the sponsoring organisations. Additionally, the whole event serves as a fairly effective talent scouting system. Participants may end up being offered positions at companies, even if their specific project isn’t picked as a winner.
A hackathon is a time-limited event where people come together to work on projects. Projects can be individual, group, or be worked on by everyone. Hackathons may be themed, have a specific purpose, or can be open for anyone to work on projects that interest them. The concept is generally to develop concepts that may otherwise not receive time and effort. Team building, out-of-the-box creativity, and talent scouting are all extra potential benefits of hackathons. Hackathons don’t necessarily have anything to do with computer security hacking. Instead, the word hack refers to creative and exploratory programming.