Hackathons often fail on the measure that most of us consider primary: the prototypes. After all, the end of the day is a demo. But lots of hackathon-born experiments don't turn out quite like their creators would like, which can end the day on a sour note.
After a few of those, you're not so excited about hackathons anymore.
Veteran hackathon organizers and judges I spoke to say it's critical to change the way we talk about the goals of the hackathon so participants don't come away feeling frustrated.
Many hackathons succeed in making great social connections between members of the same community or company, and the cross-pollination between skills can jolt creativity. If that's the idea, then make it clear. If the goal is real, deployable projects, then provide a structure and plenty of prep time. Here's how to do both.
If you want hackers to actually build something worthwhile in the end, try serializing a series of short technical hackathons that build into one larger project.
"The process is the number one thing: it's all about learning this rapid prototyping—how you get from nothing to a totally finished publishable product," says Jonathan Marmor, the founder of Monthly Music Hackathon NYC. "If you can do it in a day, then certainly you can do it with a bigger project in a month."
Marmor, a composer and engineer, says the music hackathon series attracts people with a wide variety of backgrounds, from instrument builders to programmers to music entrepreneurs.
"They're sharing different pieces of what they're working on with each other," he says. "Maybe somebody's building a web app and ends up talking to a scientist [about digital signal processing]."
And they're each just one day each, so there's not enough time to build out a large-scale project.
"Eight hours is not really enough for me to start a composition project from scratch and finish it and get the score done and then get an ensemble to rehearse it and perform it," he says. "I will take some nugget of an idea and try to develop that."
But that time limitation can be a powerful benefit, teaching participants to quickly prototype an idea and get feedback on it, he says.
"If you do it every month, you're going to become fluent in this process, and when you have a big idea you're going to be able to execute on it and sort of know the pitfalls of creating a minimal viable product and turning it into something bigger," says Marmor.
Make sure hackers know the requirements and have time to plan and prepare well before the event. And if the plan is to let participants tinker with new technology and build simpler prototypes, make sure that's clear, too, so hackers know they have the freedom to experiment and practice new skills before the starting gun goes off.
Not every hackathon project is going to become a full-fledged product, and it's important to make sure participants understand that so there's no hard feelings after the fact, says Mike Curtis, the vice president of engineering at Airbnb, which holds regular internal hackathons.
"The purpose of this is to create lots of ideas and to have fun together as a team, but not everything is going to ship to production," he says.
A few internal tools used by the company did evolve from hackathon projects, says Curtis.
"There's a few examples of things that we've built in hackathons that have ended up just being disruptive internally, how we operate day to day," he says, including an internal link shortener and an improved company directory system. Airbnb's holiday card program, that lets hosts and guests swap virtual greeting cards, got its start as a hackathon project, too.
The goal isn't to build a complete product from start to finish during the hackathon but to let good ideas materialize that can later potentially be fleshed out, he says. The hackathons also let employees who wouldn't normally work together collaborate on projects, he says, something that was echoed by Facebook's Pedram Keyani.
"We create this kind of alternate social graph," says Keyani, forming ties that help different departments work together even after the hackathon is done. "The social connections there are insanely valuable."
Some high-profile features like Facebook Chat grew out of hackathon ideas, but projects aren't limited to engineering and code, he says.
"Nonengineering teams will do hackathons," he says. "They'll say, 'let's rethink how we run Legal.'"
Hackathon teams with promising ideas get to present them to Facebook executives including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, but it's understood that some of the most interesting ideas won't have a clear path to becoming products, he says.
"The instinct is to try to create some kind of prize system or incentive for people to hack or come up with cool ideas, but that sets up very shortsighted views of projects and gamifies it in a way that I think is unhealthy," says Keyani. "For us, hacking is the prize."
Hackathons let participants push their own limits as creators and developers and also get some experience pitching their ideas, says Prachi Gupta, a senior engineering manager at LinkedIn.
"You become a salesperson by the end of the day," she says. "It's an amazing transformation that you can go through in 24 hours."
LinkedIn organizes internal hackathons as well as public events like the DevelopHer hackathon for women and an annual hackathon for interns from companies across the tech world. The public hackathons have helped recruit potential employees, but that's not the only reason the company sponsors them, says Gupta.
"If you're only looking at hackathons as a recruiting tool, that's not good at all," she says. "We want people to come together and learn from us about things that we know how to do, and to teach us better about things that they know how to do."
Letting participants learn from one another was a big motivation for the Tribeca Film Institute in creating its Tribeca Hacks series, that brings filmmakers and other traditional storytellers together with designers, developers, and engineers, says Opeyemi Olukemi, Tribeca's manager of digital initiatives. (Full disclosure: I participated in Tribeca's Story Matter science storytelling hackathon last month.)
"It was really about understanding the lack of space for people to learn," says Olukemi, explaining that when Tribeca Hacks launched in 2012, filmmakers didn't have a place to learn to work with technical people to develop new kinds of content. Now, she says, participants from previous hackathons have gone on to apply for funding for larger projects from Tribeca's New Media Fund, and one hackathon project, a physical version of the iPhone game Flappy Bird, is raising funds through Kickstarter.
"The interdisciplinary collaboration across our hackathon is exploding, and I'm very proud to see that happen," she says.
For hackathons where the primary goal really is to produce viable projects and ideas, it helps to make sure hackers are well informed about the problems to be solved, says Mike Mathieu, the cofounder of Walk Score and a sometimes hackathon judge who has previously written about the limitations of the format.
The Sunlight Foundation has also seen that giving people a clearly defined task leads to more useful code, as when the open government group asked attendees at the PyCon conference to write scrapers for their states' legislative sites.
"We had a very relatable task: iI was very well-documented and replicable," says Tom Lee, the director of the foundation's Sunlight Labs.
But even less structured events still have brought Sunlight some useful ideas and helped motivate supporters and potential employees, he says.
"It is also a way to bring in new people, whether that's from a staffing perspective or just sort of an organizational awareness and support perspective," says Lee. "People get a little more excited about our mission when they learn a little more about it, even if they're not going to become a coder themselves."