The fundamentals behind a successful hackathon

 PennApps hackathon was the largest college hackathon in the world and it took place this past weekend. It produced some of the best/most entertaining hacks that I’ve seen at any hackathon: Remote controlled battle bots, Automatic Wifi Authentication for facebook friends, enlarging media seamlessly from one to multiple mobile screens, app that messages you if you forget to put required items in your backpack, exploring neighborhoods from the comfort of your couch with augmented reality, just to name a few.

Looking back, I would say that this hackathon was a smashing success, and I’m sure the other sponsors would say the same. From my perspective as a developer evangelist, here’s why PennApps turned out to be a legendary hackathon and what we can learn from it:

Most hackathons projects turn out to be boring –

Too many hackathons today are searching for a success story – hackathon project turned into successful startup. The type of ‘hacks’ that win tend to be the most complete, polished, and can be profitable. As a result, the kind of apps built at hackathons turn out to be variations of existing products hoping to fill a niche. “we are like the <insert company here> for <insert noun>”. Despite a pretty UI, these projects lack innovation and gets old quickly. I think this is the wrong story to be chasing for.

Why Developers go to hackathons –

Most hackathon projects do not turn into successful startups, and there is a great reason for that. According to this infographic of hackathon participants, the top 2 reasons (by far) to go to a hackathon is to learn new things and meet other developers. Launching a new startup at a hackathon to attract investors was the least popular reason to attend to hackathons. Devs don’t want to go to hackathons to launch a new product. They want to try new things and build cool shit. Building another variation of yelp, kickstarter, or deals aggregator is neither impressive nor interesting.

What hackathon is not –

“How do you make money?” should never be asked of a hackathon project. The goal of a successful “hack” is to be mentally stimulating for developers, not profitable.

Instead of placing value on polished and well designed apps, hackathon organizers and judges should judge a hackathon based on its creativity, originality, and technological complexity. Accept that hackathon projects are not meant to turn into startups, and focus on giving prizes to hacks that generates the most ‘wows’ and ‘cools’

Learning from PennApps –

Cool projects and wows were exactly what happened last weekend. There wasn’t a “kickstarter for this”, or a “yelp for that”. Most projects were original and creative ideas that I had not seen anywhere else( Musical toilets? 3D video recording and facial recognition?). It was refreshing and despite 48 hours of hacking, developers were attentive and engaged during demo sessions, watching, admiring, and learning from the creative demos.

At the end, developers excitedly congregated and each talked about how they accomplished their hack. The technical difficulty behind each project is enlightening and developers learned from each other’s creativity.

And so PennApps hacks were a different kind of story. The focus was not on business viability of the winning projects, but on the originality and creativity of the idea behind each hack. PennApps was organized by fellow hackers who understood and developers left the hackathon feeing inspired. The hackathon story should be about the projects themselves, not the potential success of the winning few.

Congrads to all the college hackers who joined us at PennApps! For pictures, check out our facebook album!