No, I will not build your app for free pizza

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The Sydney Opera House hackathon is off to a bad start. The infamous institution is holding a hackathon next month. They are offering a prize of $4K AU (about $3, 750 US) along with ‘The glory of developing an app for Sydney Opera House which will be seen by millions of visitors every year’  for the best hack. The Register dove into the Terms & Conditions (warning, 2,000 words of legalize) and dug up all sorts of IP grabs. Bottom line, at the end of the hack the SOH can do just about anything it wants with what you built at the hackathon. To quote the Register:

“By entering this competition, every last line of code you cut becomes the property of the Sydney Opera House Trust.”

There’s also this little nugget in the T&C:

“By entering this Hackathon, you agree that use of information in our representatives’ unaided memories in the development or deployment of our products or services does not create liability for us”

One can just imagine how it this came about. Some biz guys (yeah, all evil comes from the biz guys) were sitting around thinking about how they could get their mobile app done for cheap. “Let’s do a hackathon! Toss a few bean bag chairs and power strips into a hotel conference room. Send in boxes of Pizza every 6 hours and out will pop dozens of apps to chose from. Even if none of the apps built are polished enough for release we will be able to mine all the best ideas from the most creative Australian techies and put them into our app when we finally hire that digital agency to build it.”

Unfortunately for the SOH, developers are too smart for that. They can do the math. To win a high profile hackathon with a goal of building a mobile app for millions of users, you probably need a team of four: the front-end programmer,  the back-end programmer, the designer and the do-everything-else-including-the-presentation guy/gal (a.k.a The Face).  At a modest $125 an hour per team member on the open market that team costs $500 per hour,  so 24 hours of hacking is worth about $12,000. (That’s not even counting the pre-hack work that any team going to win will do – getting the code repository setup, the tools primed, the workflow established).  The chance to win a $4K prize for $12K of work is just not worth it.  And of course, the SOH IP grab crosses the line. Any developer who goes to the SOH understanding the T&C will leave their best ideas at home. No one wants to give away their good ideas for nothing.

The Sydney Opera House is not the first example of a hackathon abuse nor will it be the last – but it highlights the wrong thinking that many businesses seem to have about hackathons – that hackathons are a way to get stuff built quickly and cheaply. So here’s some unsolicited advice to businesses thinking about holding hackathons from someone who’s been to lots of them and has seen how they work.

Hackathons are not competitions –  Hackers love to build stuff. We build apps, we build web sites, we build hardware gizmos, we build musical instruments. Hacking is all about being creative and building stuff. Nothing fosters creativity more than being in a room full of other like-minded folks. Folks that share your passion for building cool stuff. At a hackathon such as a Music Hack Day, the emphasis is not on prizes, the emphasis is on creativity.  At a Music Hack Day hackers form teams spontaneously to build stuff. They share ideas with each other, they help each other – they revel in every cool demo.  If you throw a big prize into the mix the dynamic changes dramatically. The hackathon becomes a competition.  Hackers become developers that are thinking strategically about how to win the prize. They don’t share ideas with others, they don’t go for the creative but risky idea – they go for the conservative idea and spend their extra energy making nice colors and fonts in the PowerPoint presentation for the demo.  In the early days of the Music Hack Day, we had one event where a big local sponsor brought a $10K cash prize. Not knowing any better, we went with it, but that was a mistake.  Yes, there were lots of hackers and lots of completed projects, but the whole vibe of the hackathon was different. The hackathon was no longer a center of creative sharing, instead it was a cut-throat event. The goal was no longer about being creative, the goal was to win $10K . We learned our lesson and now we make sure that prizes offered at Music Hack Days are modest. Note that there are some really good hackathons like HackerOlympics that are designed to be competitions. These hackathons value teams that can think quickly and creatively across a wide range of skill sets. Winners get bragging rights and modest prizes.

Don’t use a hackathon as a way to develop your app – no one wants to go to a hackathon to do work for someone else.  Hackers want to scratch their own creative itch , they don’t want to build your app for you.  No amount of free pizza is going to change that. Now,  if you’ve got a million dollars to spend, I’m sure you’ll get some good apps but that’s not the kind of hackathon I’d really want to go to.

Bottom line - if your hackathon has a T&C that requires developers to give up any rights to the stuff they’ve created at your hackathon you are doing it wrong.  If you are going to give away big prizes, don’t expect to have a creative, sharing atmosphere – if you give away big prizes expect to see people spend more time working on a powerpoint and less time on that creative but risky hack.  The currency at a hackathon should be creativity, not money or prizes and at the end of it all, the creators should own their own ideas. No amount of pizza should change that.

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  1. #1 by Svantana on November 19, 2013 - 10:56 am

    Word up. If I was based in Sydney, I would show up, work on whatever I’m working on, enjoy the freebies and (hopefully) creative atmosphere. Then if needed, submit “hello world” for their enjoyment. Personally I see no wrong in taking advantage of the advantage-takers…

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