Hackathon Sponsorship and the Death of Hacker Culture

While reading an article by Rodney Folz about Selling Out and the Death of Hacker Culture, I found many parallels between Rodney’s experiences and my own. This post describes the latter.

In 2014, a few enthusiastic hackers got together and organized HackerBowl, Texas A&M University’s first ever hackathon. Held in the press box of the iconic Kyle Field, there was plenty of space for the small group of ~20-30 attendees. There were two sponsors: a hosting company and a local incubator. They supported the initiative with food, caffeine, and their services to help us throughout the weekend. The challenges for the weekend were extremely open-ended: “Best Overall”, “Most Influential to Society”, “People’s Choice”, and so on. The prizes were small, but no one really cared. Most of the hackers came to build. To create. To hack. The attendees were friendly; open to discussing ideas, teaching, and helping to debug.

This was hacker culture at its finest.

As time passed, more companies began sponsoring these events. With increased funds, hackathons began to expand in size to several hundreds or even thousands of participants. Many events provided hundreds of dollars in travel reimbursements for hackers to fly across the country just to compete. Prizes increased in value to tens of thousands of dollars in tech gadgets and cash. Pizza and chips were replaced by steaks and creme brulee. 1 Hackathon organizers competed with one another to be the biggest and best.

However, this growth in hackathons also had an unintended side-effect: many hackers (myself included) began focusing on winning prizes, rather than focusing on the learning and building. Competition is an inherently positive thing; however, in this hypercompetitive situation, hackers began to lie and cheat to win. Many hackers stopped being friendly and mentoring each other, for fear of “helping the competition”. Some would come to the hackathon with hacks already halfway complete. Some would lie and state they used a specific API or service without actually using it, in hopes of skating by and winning. At one hackathon, lying and cheating was so rampant that a sponsor for AWS began requesting proof to verify that teams were actually interacting with Amazon’s servers. Sadly, over 2/3rds of the teams were unable to prove that they were actually using AWS in any capacity.

On the other hand, some companies are also beginning to exploit hackathons as a source of free or cheap labor. At a hardware hackathon, advertised as a generic “make-a-thon” for hardware hackers, the judging panel consisted solely of a single large sponsor, with the judges only caring about projects that benefited the sponsor company and its bottom line. Many groups with innovative solutions, deserving of recognition for their hard work, lost to solutions catered towards the specific company. Another instance: for two years in a row, a startup would show up to a local hackathon, with an architectural spec/design sheet for a mobile app and offer an “API prize” for the team that managed to finish the most requirements on the list. The prize offered was a contract for the hackers to finish and ship the project, so that the company could use it in their day-to-day operations. Rather than relying on in-house talent or hiring professional contractors for production quality code, this startup decided to spend a few thousand in sponsor money to gain access to sleep deprived student hackers, rushing to finish every feature on the spec sheet in under 24 hours.

I see this trend as a divergence from the “hacker culture” that originally drew me in to hackathons and computer science in general. It saddens me that hackers, both current and future, will never be able to experience hacker culture as I did. Don’t get me wrong: there are still some great hackathons, and I still rave about/recommend hackathons in general to anyone and everyone I meet. It is a great way to learn something new, build something cool, network with interesting people, and get free food (always a plus for broke college students 😉). However, the golden age of hackathons (and hacker culture) is dead.


1: Slight exaggeration.. I had steaks and creme brulee once at a hackathon.