In Defence Of The Hackathon

“You can create art and beauty on a computer. Samson’s music program was an example. But to hackers, the art of the program did not reside in the pleasing sounds emanating from the online speaker. The code of the program held a beauty of its own.”

—Steven Levy, “Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution”

As part of my role at, I attend a lot of hackathons. I have a special place in my heart for these events; they’re precisely the type of event I would have loved to attend in college or high school, if I had had the opportunity to do so. But I didn’t. My hacking was limited to sitting alone, in my room, staring at a screen and pushing bytes until things worked. And while that was incredibly formative for me and a great way to learn, it didn’t really connect me to a community. It was accutely a solo activity for me.

Hackathons are different, though. In the last fifteen hours, I’ve formed part of a “#swagboat” (which, for the uninitiated, is a group of people sitting on wheelie chairs, forming a conga line that rolls around distributing swag), judged a dance competition (in which there was very little dancing, if we’re to be discerning), and now I am reclining in front of a surprisingly soothing video of a fireplace projected on a monitor, surrounded by hackers. As I blog, someone in front of me is hacking together a pong game that replaces the ball with Nyan Cat and is likely to induce seizures. I spent a few minutes discussing the merits of distributed hash tables with a hacker who wants to try to create a distributed network of Android devices. Fellow evangelists discussed the finer points of evangelism with me, and we engaged in some friendly ribbing (I met a developer that uses Windows. No, seriously. He even booted it to prove it to me.) A developer just walked up to me and is explaining how he is writing an assembler for the CPU he made up four hours ago. I wish I were joking.

Last week, I met more tech talent in my hometown than I thought existed. I met a group of hackers that reminded me of my love for open source and taught me a bunch of cool new tricks.

I made new friends. I always make new friends at these events. These are my people. The silly, the exuberant, the fun. The people who love to build, and who build for no reason other than the joy they get out of it.

Every time I hear the term “business plan” at a hackathon, I die a little on the inside.

There’s nothing wrong with business plans. There’s nothing wrong with building a sustainable business in a weekend. I have a great respect for Startup Weekend events and events like them, but I also have a deep respect for hackathons. And I humbly submit that the two are different.

A hackathon is an event about fun. It is supposed to embody the spirit of a hack: something cool that is made for the sheer joy of making it. Something that may not be useful right now, but is still cool technology. A lot of our current computing culture was defined by hacks that had no immediately obvious use case.

More importantly, the joy of creating is a strong part of our culture right now. And I’m afraid it’s a part of our culture that is being edged out by the recent focus on business. The rest of the world figured out that technology is valuable and can create a lot of wealth quickly, and we started to lose sight of tech for the sake of tech. We started to lose sight of the fun-loving, prank-playing, unabashedly-silly culture we have inherited from the True Hackers Of Old™. The people you read about in a Steven Levy book.

That’s a terrible thing for us to lose.

So please, the next time you find yourself at a hackathon, stop focusing on your business plan. Stop trying to build something you can go home and use today. Build something that you’re going to have fun building. And if you’ve never been to a hackathon, please come to one. And bring your sense of fun.