Over the weekend of February 17 through 19, 2012, a small organization called HumbleBundle raised over $458,000 for charity. How did they do it? Three independent game development studios, including Mojang — creators of the wildly popular Minecraft game — spent a sleepless 60 hours developing three games from conception to publication. People were free to pay whatever they wished for the games, and all the proceeds went directly to charities. This is just one example of the power of a new phenomenon known as hackathons.
What is Hackathon?
A hackathon is an event in which computer programmers and others in the software industry come together over the space of a short period of time — a day to a week is typical — to develop or improve upon a specific software project. Most hackathons revolve around a theme. It could be a specific programming language to use, a particular platform, an API (application programming interface) or some other element that adds unity to the project. Hackathon is popularly known as Hack day, code day, Code-fest. Learn more about Hackathon.
Although they have existed since at least 1999, hackathons really took off in popularity during the mid to late 2000s. Today, they are seen as an increasingly important way to develop a product quickly. With today’s emphasis on agile development, many companies are eager to take advantage of the new opportunities and concepts that can spawn from such events. Companies like Facebook and Google offer prizes for the best products developed from internal hackathons. Venture capitalists have taken an increased interest in these events and the pool of talent they attract as well, hoping to fund the next great software phenomenon.
There have been some spectacular success stories of companies and ideas born at hackathons. For example, TechCrunch Disrupt NYC 2010, one of the largest hackathon events, was responsible for the development of a company called GroupMe. GroupMe offers mobile group messaging on a range of phones, and as of mid-2011 handled over 100 million messages a month. It was eventually acquired by Skype for $85 million.
A hackathon staged by Ford and Facebook employees in early March 2012 was responsible for the generation of several new ideas that aimed to “socialize the car”. The event’s software engineers had 24 hours to find new ways to integrate Facebook into Ford’s SYNC system. One of the most interesting ideas conceived was the possibility of the SYNC system checking to see if friends are in the area and obtaining directions to their location. Another possibility was automatically notifying your friends of your estimated arrival time if you are running late.
It is not just corporations that use hackathons. Many social justice organizations have harnessed the power of these collaborative and competitive events to create new programs to help spread their messages. For example, Change.org organized an event called Hack for Change in San Francisco during the summer of 2011. Over the course of the 24-hour event, around 100 hackers created 17 web and mobile apps that focused on everything from notifying people of new arrivals at animal shelters, to an SMS alert system to let people know when their neighbors need help, to a food exchange system for home gardeners.
It is clear that hackathons are not only here to stay, but are likely to play an ever more crucial part in the software development cycle. Only the most flexible and dynamic developers will thrive in the future; hackathons are a great place to foster these qualities.