Hackathons are not nonsense

Dave Winer says that Hackathons are nonsense.  Specifically he says:

Hackathons are how marketing guys wish software were made.

However, to make good software, requires lots of thought, trial and error, evaluation, iteration, trying the ideas out on other users, learning, thinking, more trial and error, and on and on. At some point you say it ain’t perfect, but it’s useful, so let’s ship. That process, if the software is to be any good, doesn’t happen in 24 hours. Sometimes it takes years, if the idea is new enough.

Dave says that software is hard and you can’t you can’t expect to build shippable software in a day.  That’s certainly true, and if the goal of a hackathon was to get a bunch of developers together to build and ship commercial software in a day, I’d agree with him. But that’s not the goal of any of the hackathons I’ve attended.

I’ve participated in and/or helped organize perhaps a dozen Music Hack Days. At a Music Hack Day, people who are interested in music and technology get together for a weekend to learn about music tech and to build something with it.  The goal isn’t to ship a software product, it is to scratch that personal itch to do something cool with music.   The people who come to a Music Hack Day  are often not in the music tech space, but are interested in learning about  all the music APIs and tech available.  They come to learn and then use what they’ve learned to build something.  At the most recent Music Hack Day in San Francisco, 200 hackers built 60 hacks including new musical instruments, new music discovery tools, social music apps and music games.

Photo by Thomas Bonte

Music Hack Days are not nonsense. They are incredibly creative weekends that have resulted in a 1,000 or more really awesome music hacks.  Consider the hackathon to be the Haiku of programming. Instead of  17 syllables in 3 lines, a hacker has  24 hours. (Maybe we should call them Haikuthons;)   I think the 24 hour constraint contributes to the creativity of the event.

Here are some of my favorite hacks built at recent Music Hack Days. Plenty of whimsy but no nonsense here:

A hackathon is not nonsense.  It is not a time to build and ship a commercial product and no one who hacks at  a hackathon thinks that they are building anything more than a hack. That’s why hack is in the title. A hackathon is a time for like minded individuals to get together to learn something new, build something cool and show it off. In my experience, hackathons are incredibly creative time for learning and building something. What better way to spend a weekend.  Hackathons are awesome.

  1. #1 by Arkadiy Kukarkin on February 20, 2012 - 11:10 pm

    To be fair, at least a few of these projects were built largely outside the hack day (Invisible Instruments, in particular)

  2. #2 by Tristan Jehan on February 21, 2012 - 10:37 am

    I once heard Michel Gondry say he constrained himself with material and tools in order to be creative. Others use CGI.

  3. #3 by Tristan Jehan on February 21, 2012 - 10:40 am

    When asked how long it took Pablo Picasso to make a painting, he answered 30 years.

  4. #4 by Ben Fields (@alsothings) on February 22, 2012 - 6:52 am

    ‘Hackathons are awesome’. Yes! I think the problem is that of perspective. I always view hacks as learning exercises, where neat products/apps/whatever are sometimes produced as an accidental by-product, not the expressed purpose. The constraints combine with the ability to do whatever seems interesting or useful, is, I find, highly productive but not in a way that is at deterministic or directly commercial (though certainly commercially useful outcomes are possible). So, perhaps if you look at a hackday from an explicitly commercial perspective, you end up with the wrong idea and they seem rather useless (this can perhaps also lead to some things at hackdays that I’ve never been that excited by, like large cash prizes). But at least to me this all comes down to perspective and expectations.

    (Also, thanks for the tourrentplans shout out)

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