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Hackathons Comes In All Shapes and Sizes

As the nation braces itself for the summer 2012 Olympics, it is worth looking across the Atlantic to a new way of dreaming up, devising and creating killer apps that potentially could earn millions, but is unlikely to become a real sport. It is, however, a serious business process.

Hackathons are 24 – 48 hour competitive, collaborative events in which teams have to create and realise an app each with full functionality, name, logo and website of its own. Teams need to reflect widely different but complimentary skills. These are not for geeks alone.

They are also styled hack days (though the longest can run to a week), hackfest or codefest. The software that is created is of the non-horizon, blue sky, borderless kind that will enable all kinds of new products and uses/applications to be made feasible and available.

Begun in 2005 with Yahoo’s Hack Day ‘as a vehicle for open-source software developers to organize their collective computer-coding efforts’, by 2011 there were over two hundred hackathons in the USA alone.

Ever more user-friendly software writing tools and an acceptance by more companies that their data will be manipulated and morphed in the name of development, have contributed to what is an accepted method of multiplying business innovation.

Since it arrived in 2007, Apples’ iOS system has seen half a million applications developed, earning a staggering $3 billion for the app developers. Android’s 400,000 apps are reckoned to have made over $100 million so far. Apps can be extended in their core features simply by ‘cutting and pasting a few lines of code’ (the glue layer). This simplicity is behind an exponential growth in new ideas.

What’s the Basic Idea?

If you’ve seen the film about Facebook, The Social Network, you will recall the 10 minute hack-off Zuckerberg staged, with the winner becoming his first intern. It’s reported that even today every two months or so, 700 Facebook engineers gather behind locked doors for a 24 hour competition to hack-ideastorm and innovate.

Google encourages engineers to put 20% of their hours aside for other projects, which help them all, but show the power of pressured creativity and freedom to try things. LinkedIn staff run overnight coding competitions ‘to stave off boredom’.

While every hackathon is unique, there are six elementary, quite easy to follow stages. First someone must dream up an idea for an app which will incorporate everything going, including text-messaging, photo filters, games, tablets and even microwaves.

Then a team is built, two to five enthusiasts who get together either by design beforehand or randomly at the event. The perfect team includes somebody to code, another to design the interface and somebody to argue the business case for the app. Building it can be a gruelling, extended process.

Each team has literally a minute or two to demonstrate how it works and what is its potential for direct and advertising revenue and further development. The judges are programmers, CEOs of major producers, venture capitalists who might invest. The criteria for deciding winners are original concept, absolute functionality, design and the overall business/marketing plan.

Small competitions offer $10,000 while bigger ones have available around a quarter of a million dollars for seed cash or a place on a business accelerator program. What all winners have is an opportunity to market themselves into future, wider app-making markets.

A Working Example

An account of how Steven Lockert took part and led a team in BeMyApp in San Francisco is described in the March 2012 Wired Magazine. His was the business brain and he gathered a team of a ‘technical wizard’, a former Google employee with web server experience and a coder with a good track record.

With Californian heat outside, they toiled for hours without break into the night in a fluorescent-lit basement, fuelled by energy drinks and cookies. They had 48 hours to complete from scratch a functioning Android mobile app.

It began with 60 seconds for the ‘idea generators’ to pitch, followed by half an hour to circulate the engineers and designers, like a speed dating evening and make a team. He had found his coder at an earlier event. Mark Bowling was responsible for the iPad app ‘for remotely controlling a Lego Mindstorm NXT rover using the tablet’s accelerometer – tilt the iPad left, the bot goes left’.

Who’s Driving the Concept?

Large companies host these app-generating contests. For a modest outlay on venue and food, companies can raise awareness of their products in the now and harness an a product that could generate millions in the near future. Microsoft, Nokia and Unilever are among the big names to have latched on this idea.

Investors are very interested in what is crowd-sourcing, in effect, but all in one handy place, ideas sparking off each other. The more stress and intensity there is can also be a spur to creativity. There have been teens only, females only, students only, hackathons to raise money for the elderly, for education charities, for the environment and even one to build ‘Occupy Wall Street tools’.

Leckart said that BeMyApp is ‘a mill’. They run events regularly every three months concurrently in major cities including London, Zurich and Paris and expect each to produce at least one project that reaches Apple’s or Android’s app store. This is really no different from song factories/recording studies in the past that have churned out hits after hits in confined, pressured environments.

One participant was quoted as saying: “Shit gets weird at a hackathon around 5am. People are walking around like zombies’. But group text-messaging service GroupMe is one example of the possible rewards from a hackathon start. Skype bought it for $85 million in 2010. Weirdness at 5am was obviously worth it.

Steven Leckart, Wired Magazine, March 2012.

Photo: deror_avi