What is a Hackathon?

Ask anyone this question, and you'll get answers that range from "I don't know" to "An event for developers" to "Hacking into people's computers". But what are they really, can you use it, and why are they becoming popular? So, most of those answers really come from experiencing a hackathon, but we do our best to answer that for your below!

Statistics are HackOut.Ninja's proprietary findings available to the public.

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Common Words Used Amongst Top Hackathon Articles

The Simple Definition and Purpose of a Hackathon

A hackathon is where all types of people with different skills come together and build out ideas in a short-term & gamified innovation event. Results are then judged for prizes based on merit and effort.

A hackathon is where people come together to solve something, build something cool, or build something new and it's all done within a condensed time frame. Hackathons come in many shapes and sizes because they're about self expression1.

Self Expression?

At a hackathon, everyone is able to contribute the best of themselves in meaningful ways. Because of the short amount of time and environment of groupwork at a hackathon, no one is ignored, and limitations to creativity are few. When teams come together, they usually have little in common, and vagualey know each other. They have to establish relationships quickly- getting to life experiences and overcoming social anxieties. As the team begin brainstormng around ideas- or problems to solve, they begin to bounce experiences and ideas off of each other. (Pro-tip: Optimal team size: 4-6 people and time for relationship-building: 2 hours). Many times, new perspectives are discovered and the problems ientified are well-rounded and impactful. (Pro-tip: The more diverse a team is, the better the results.)

Hackathons are highly engaging and high energy events that require much from everyone who participates. The benefits are that while everyone is working diligently, they do so in an enjoyable way and everyone leaves feeling as though something has been accomplished. It is important to have realistic expectations associated with a hackathon, however. Resources that will make the planning process simpler include communication tools, planning tools, relationships with local networks, schools, and corporations, access to capital via sponsors, and a driving motivator or main objective for putting on a hackathon.


There are many criticisms asociated with hackathons, and in many ways they are quite valid. We debate/discuss them in "What Makes a Successful Hack?"
1- They are not effective because teams stop working once the hackathon is over.
2- Data is not always handled efficiently because there is not enough expertise present in the team
3- Societal change is not possible by one team at one event

LadyNinja Jerica @HackOut.Ninja from HackOutNinja on Vimeo.

"The layout was able to foster an environment where people could come
together and see each other with value. "

History of Hacks and Statistics

The first reported hackathon was at OpenBSD3,5. The hackathon had a humble beginning with a few developers seeking to "hack" something quickly where everyone needed to solve a problem was present. Facebook, Yahoo, StartUp Weekend, MLH, TechCrunch, Angel Hacks and others then progressively made hackathoning into the growing industry it is today4.

Over time, these hackathons have changed in style, but the overall culture has remained the same. It's counter to the confines of traditional brainstorming and problem-solving. Resources are shared and problems are self-determined. The merit of the idea supercedes the merit of the individual team members. Oh, and nothing is impossible. Hackathons have become major production events with speakers, showcases, reimbursed travel, competition brackets, live stream pitching, million-dollar prizes, and accommodations for 1000+ people in person and online.

OpenBSD Hack: Just getting stuff done. 10 developers
Facebook Hack: Internal and Impactful- The "Like Button" Happened.
StartUp Weekend, Qeyno Labs, MLH.io: Big productions

History of Hacks Timeline Overview

Stat: Hackathon Demographic Stat Medley

Stat: Hackathon Heat Map 2017

Stat: Reasons for Hackathon Growth

We define productivity is a measurement of how the team is able to collectively complete their activities. Productivity = Contributions by Members + Task Completion + Idea Efficacy. Contributions by members is the ratio of members that are able to contirubte and those that are not. Many times, this numebr is infuenced by inernal politics (if the team mebers are already familiar with one another), and team size. Task completion is a number reflecting how many tasks get completed given a medium array of tasks to complete (idea formulation and plan of implementation, and some plan validation). Idea efficiacy is a guage of idea perspective-how many different components of the idea have been considered. This number is influenced by team diversity, team size, and idea complexity and scope. Below is a graph showing the impact of team size on the total productivity score.

Stat: Team Size Optimization. Productivity = Contributions by Members + Task Completion + Idea Efficacy

Structure of a Hackathon

Hackathons come in many different shapes. Knowing your audience and objectives will help to determine what kind of hackathon you should create. The only thing that should remain the same is the collaborative nature of the hackathon. We break hackathons into 4 customizable parts:

Specific Measurable Skill Learning- the theme of the hackathon
Brainstorming Process- the process by which teams decide and create a product or outcome
Product/Outcomes- the results after the hackathon that includes the groups’ individual creations
Building Relationships- the individual relationship and group dynamics that are the result of the hackathon

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What is Hacker Culture?

If you say yes to these questions, you may already some have hack culture.
1- Think some processes could be better or more effiencient and you want to do something about it?
2- Want to be a part of seeing what's coming in the future and eaving your fingerprint on it?
3- See systemic issues in your community and have an idea around what should be done?
4- Think that if people were to take the time to listen to one another, we could have better solutions
5- Looking for time to just hang out and meet new people

If you are planning to orchestrate a hackathon, you must stay true to hackathon culture. It's not about free labor or developing an application as a solution to everything. It's about community and perspective. People attend hackathons for the comraderie, fun, free food exposure to new things and people. Most people don't want to be recruited at a hacakthon (unless that's the specific purpose) and most people don't want to feel like they are constrained or limited to outcomes desired by the "sponsoring company". Hacker culture is about discovering novelties- unique methods to accomplish something.

Self Expression

Hackathon Myths and What Else Should I Know?

Myth #1 Hackathons Are About Coding

As you should know by now, hackathons span all industries and offer possiblities for the creation of new software, procurement on new content, development of new business processes, or the creation of a new non-profit and the next billion dollar company.

Myth #2 The Winning Team Has the Fanciest Prototype

Yes, it's still a competition- there are winners and losers. While friendly, the anxiety is palpable when it's time for team pitches and before the judges announce the winners. The team most likely to win is the team with the best team dynamics- diversity in backgrounds and experiences, perspective sharing, emotional connection to problems, etc.

Myth #3 Kids Can't Do Hackathons

This is far from the truth. We've seen "kids" come up with amazing gadgets and ideas. The best part we've witnessed are teams with varying age participants. Kids have experiences too and their creativity is not as stifled as some adults may be. Our team once assisted with a hackathon for middle-schoolers. In a matter of hours, these teams had created entire testable businesses with prototypes- simply because it was okay to do so.

Random Stats

Reason for Case Study

We set out to determine exactly what a hackathon is given the rapid growth of a hacakthon and it's lack of standardization. While there is an increasing amount of available information for hack performance, it is currently still limited in scope. For our purposes, being able to describe and categorize a hackathon, allows us to perform accurate research. The content in this case study pulls from some external sources and demonstrates the overall consensus on what a hackathon is and the potential that its participants see.

Sources for Case Study

1- https://medium.com/hackathons-anonymous/wtf-is-a-hackathon-92668579601
2- http://www.govtech.com/data/Who-Invented-the-Hackathon.html
3- http://www.govtech.com/data/Who-Invented-the-Hackathon.html
4- https://www.slideshare.net/JonMarkGo/the-history-of-hackathons
5- http://www.openbsd.org/hackathons.html