12 Oct 2016 20:41 IST

Whose hack is it anyway?

Hackathons are breathless events for leapfrogging into future

Eighteen-year-old Neelesh groggily staggered through the door in the morning after three nights and two days. His parents, confused, asked him if anything was wrong. Though Neelesh had informed them of his absence from home, they were worried. Neelesh managed to say cheerily: “We won! My team won the first prize!” and pumped his fists in the air. Then, he crashed on his bed and fell asleep.

His parents exchanged a glance that said ‘typical of him’ and sighed. His team had won a ‘hackathon’ organised by a multinational company to develop working prototypes for Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

Neelesh is your typical guy who loves coding and goes at it for days.

“I have participated in more than 10 hackathons in the past year. I have consumed copious quantities of coffee and Redbull, but the projects my team and I completed were worth the effort. I also met amazing people at these events,” says another passionate coder.

Hackathons are contests in which groups of developers, experts, graphic visualisers, user interface designers and project managers collaborate to develop prototypes of innovative products, services and components. These competitions typically last from a day up to a week. Hackathons have a specific focus and rules by which teams have to operate. This framework may be open to all or restricted to individual teams.

Origin story

Where does the endless stream of new features, products or services — whether in messaging, streaming of videos, ticketing, navigation, checking status of trains or purchased items, games, buying or selling — come from? Who is behind this deluge? It is not just armies of developers, designers, artists, experts, who work for colossuses like Google, Apple and Microsoft that keep launching them. Small but highly innovative companies also help. Large development projects and teams are often behind these launches.

Increasingly, cutting-edge products and features come out of these breathless events. Even companies with large internal development teams organise hackathons to leapfrog into the future and come out with innovation that would otherwise have been impossible. The famous ‘Like’ button and ‘Facebook chat’ were first demonstrated at one of Facebook’s internal hackathons. Another example of a ‘hack’ (a product that first came out at a hackathon) is ‘GroupMe’, which was later acquired by Skype.

Marathons of effort

Hackathons are marathons of hacking efforts. The ‘thon’, from the word ‘marathon’, signals long duration and the endurance needed when competing. ‘Hack’, in this context, doesn’t mean unauthorised or illegal access to a computer system or facility. It also has no connection to physical violence. Here, it means a quick and dirty job that serves purpose. It is like cutting out a block of rock or wood to create a useful and interesting object; there is no time to chisel and polish the product. Hackathons aim to create something useful immediately — the finish can come later. They can be very useful for agile development or achieving business agility .

Encouraging talent

Hackathons draw upon passion, energy, skill and creativity of the people who wish to create something great quickly without getting bogged down by corporate working. Talented people thrive on such challenges, and the chance of winning prizes and being recognised provides further impetus to such people. Hackathons are a great way of engaging with talented people .

Though they are usually software development events, the idea is now spreading to other sectors as well. They are being held for developing business models around core technology or a problem statement, sometimes even for developing cooking recipes! One can only imagine the kind of hackathons that could be held for building a movie’s storyline.

Hackthons are events for creativity, they can be conceived creatively.