The Allure and Delusion of College Hackathons


status: draft

Thirty six hours. That's all you get.

Thirty six hours hardly seems like enough time to develop award winning software. Especially when your team can be made of no more than 4 amateurs.

In these hours you will not sleep. You will not shower. You will not eat.
You will (hopefully) avoid distractions.

Thirty six hours. Four amateurs.

So let's do a little math...
4 entry-level engineers * 36 hours = 144 hours
Average salary here would be about $60,000/year
So that's about $4150 in man hours. In a weekend.

But this is an amateur event, isn't it? There's no exchange rate for the experience one can gain here, and it's completely normal for amateur events to give out cash and prizes totaling north of $150,000. Right?

A friend said it best:

"Name me one other profession or college major that does this. Do creative writing students ever get locked in a building for 36 hours and have a novelathon?"
They don't, but what are the chances that a building full of about 400 budding writers can have a best seller emerge after 36 hours? How likely could a panel of judges choose a best-seller from just a random chapter title of each book?

So why is this so different in technology? Well novelathons don't offer publishers the same ROI the next Facebook or Uber would to eager investors. So why college students? Well, I'd like to think industry professionals would be too skeptical to participate in an event where your hard work and talent are traded for meal tickets and an Ethernet port.

Imagine if a private group tried to collect some engineers from Silicon Valley in a single building, for thirty six hours. Offering not much more than some food and refreshments. The goal being to find and fund the next big tech company. It's an amusing thought.

Still students flock to these events by the hundreds. Each of them excited about the ideas of free food, endless supplies of Red Bull, free XBoxes, Leap Motion controllers, tablets, or the grand daddy cash prize.

The problem, you see, is that these things are marketed like the Grammy's, when in reality they're much more analogous to a battle of the bands at your local bar. Like the bar owner, the organizers of these events only see dollar signs. The potential payoff is huge if they can steal "get in early" on a profitable idea.

I hope that future generations of entrepreneurs, developers, and engineers see more value in their skills, abilities, and ideas.

Post Update

I've gotten a lot of feedback regarding this post, and a lot of it can be summed up into one sentence:

You wouldn't feel this way if you had won.

To that, I issue this strong rebuttal.

We did win. We placed in the top 4% of all the teams at the event. My team came in with an extremely ambitious goal and we executed it, in only thirty six hours. This was a feat in it of itself and to me worth more than any prize money or quick-fire offer we could have received.

We earned validation for an idea with no strings attached. Something I think, is worth a lot more than people realize.

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