Hackathon is a coding event that is basically exploratory-level programming at scale. It brings together several computer programmers who indulge in mass coding to build a fresh software program or enhance an existing tool. Usually conducted by a business firm, non-profit organization, government or individual, the event is largely attended by shrewd programmers who can endure several hours of hardcore coding – usually a few days but not more than a week. A hackathon can be an intra-company event or open for participation to programmers from all over the world.

Wikimedia Hackathon 2013, Amsterdam. Image credit: Flickr
Wikimedia Hackathon 2013, Amsterdam. Image credit: Flickr

There are several hackathon events conducted in different parts of the world – MHacks and PennApps being the two biggest student hackathons. Basically, anyone can host hackathons provided there’s Wi-Fi, physical space and interested participants. Energy drinks and food are also needed. Hackathons started gaining recognition in 1999.    

Socializing

Also called a codefest or hackfest, hackathons may be held to attain a particular goal, or expose businesses to fresh ideas and talent. This is a social event and employees or participants can collaborate with other department employees or participants. Working in teams is not mandatory. Participants can also work solo, but that shouldn’t be the goal. Hackathons provide a great opportunity to interact with and learn from other coders.  

Product Idea

Participants need not necessarily have an idea to code for. They can enter in to seek solutions for a programming error they’ve encountered or could join a team that’s working on a cool product or idea. The event will have several teams looking for volunteering programmers. Any participant’s objective must be to push his/her programming capabilities and venture into the tougher or fairly unknown aspects of coding.      

What begins from scratch invariably leads to a working prototype. For instance, Facebook’s timeline feature, ‘like’ button, etc. were courtesy hackathons. But the participants are under no pressure to create a usable product (website, robots, mobile apps, etc.). Prizes (trophies, belts, and/or cash) are offered to the best outcomes.   

Criticism

The coders don’t own the hackathon end results. The company organizing the event takes home the work. Moreover, critics believe hackathons are exercises employers indulge in to derive free work from their developers on holidays or weekends.

There’s another group that thinks the codes written in a hackathon are poor. It’s more of scribbling than writing. Also, such marathon events develop unhealthy eating and sleeping habits among youngsters. New haphazard hackathons are cropping up almost every day because there aren’t defining hackathon event-conducting rules and attributes.