Major League Hacking, a national body that oversees large-scale hackathons, has several corporate sponsors. Two of those sponsors are Awake Chocolate, a hypercaffeinated chocolate brand, and Soylent, the company that wants you to down chalky protein drinks as a replacement for meals. The seemingly unlimited amounts of these products at hackathons lull students into sacrificing sleep and real food in hopes of securing a prize for their coding prowess.
The idea of the hackathon is basically a programmer’s utopian dream — groups of programmers, equipped with unlimited caffeine and snacks, try to solve the world’s technology deficits in the span of 36 hours. The participants are encouraged to work quickly and intensely for a continuous period of time, often without sleep. However, hackathons cause programmers to approach projects superficially and breed unhealthy competition, as they’re seen as the only way to get technology students to collaborate.
Hackathons are seen as a birthplace of innovation, where the brightest and youngest minds in technology go to get inspired to create the next big thing. Companies have bought in, and more and more are hosting or sponsoring hackathons. Companies provide specialized data, a space to meet others and free food. In return, developers provide their expertise — something companies desperately need in a business environment that prioritizes technological skills.
Neil Patil, a computer science sophomore, told me the hackathon initially embodied a “hobbyist” spirit, where friends or coworkers could get together to work on an interesting project. As these meetups grew, companies realized that really smart people go to these events, making them a great place to scout potential hires, and they started putting money into them. Over time, Patil believes this became a cycle of corporations pumping money into the events, leading to larger and more organized meetups, leading to more corporate influence. Ultimately, this detracts from the initial spirit of learning that
characterized the original hackathon.
The reality of hackathons is that they are glamorous at first glance, but oddly unsettling on second thought. Rarely do hackathons set the groundwork for lasting, important innovation. Instead, they feed students the narrative that innovation comes easily, when it is actually often a long and difficult process of trial and error.
At many of these events, after the “hacking” has concluded, there is a period of judging by professionals from the company sponsors. These judges view each project for approximately 10 minutes, and in this time, all that is available to evaluate is design and concept. Most of the time, the winners of hackathons are groups that cobbled together company technology and data to appeal to sponsors and win thousands of dollars in prize money.
Coders are incentivized to add as many gimmicky features as possible to their project in order to make it appealing during a 10 minute judging process, rather than to propose an idea that carries significance to them and their community. Corporate influence discourages creativity and essentially convinces students to build and inspire new company products for a cost that is infinitesimal in comparison to an industry wage.
As a result, crucial parts of the development process, such as testing and user feedback, are perceived as a waste of time in this fast-paced environment. These elements lead to the improvement of technology and an increase in accessibility over time. There is little thought given to feasibility or the social consequence of an idea someone wants to build. When hackathons downplay the relevance of the user in product development, it sets the precedent that technology can entirely ignore its human aspect.
The entire hacking culture is focused on speed, not quality, giving rise to a tech culture that cares little about people and that views the world through a profit-oriented lens. Creation can always benefit from brief periods of excited, intense work. But expecting perfection from these sprint-like work sessions is impractical. If we want an ethical tech culture, it’s time to rethink the way we encourage student exposure to the field.
Krishnan is a computer science freshman from Plano, TX. Follow her on Twitter @theamazingabby