Hack4Colorado an eye opening experience into the business of Hackathons.

I’ve “helped” with 2 hackathons.  The first one was a Bitcoin hackathon in Austin Texas during SXSW, I went to every group, heard the pitch and gave detailed feedback. Ultimately, I really felt great about contributing to the community and hearing all these innovative ideas.  The second was a Mastercoin Hackathon just a week ago.  The event was in Israel so I signed up to do a ‘virtual team’. This is not a good idea as there was no way to see what was going on and feed off the energy. So overall the 2nd event was a bust for me and really doesn’t even count.

I decided to enter Hack4Colorado as a contestant about 2 months ago as I thought it would be fun to work with like-minded peers on cool technology. I figured I’d get to hear a ton of good ideas, meet some great people, and just really be in my element.  In these capacities, I definitely got everything I wanted. I met some great people that I want to work with more and got a chance to do some active project and people management while driving the messaging and strategy of the project.  Lots of stuff, but in my element, making stuff happen fast!

Check out our entry here: https://www.hackerleague.org/hackathons/hack4colorado-2014/hacks/justcharity-transparent-donation-and-contributor-reward-system-for-charities

The website is here: http://JustCharity.tk

Long story short, we didn’t win anything, in fact we didn’t even have a chance. Turns out that the rules of the hackathon were not enforced, and by some accounts private deals were made to secure teams with big advantages.

Simply, the hackathon rules are here: http://www.hack4colorado.com/about/rules-regs/


Teams: Teams should be comprised of up to five individuals. The team should be comprised of a back end developer, a front end developer, a design person and a team leader / SME.


The issue is 5. Yes FIVE.

…up to FIVE individuals…

Now I have been around the block for a bit and this clearly seems like a hard limit of 5 people per team.  Please, anyone in the world…help me understand how this is not a limit for 5 people per team? Bring it on, bring the best lawyer in the nation and help me understand how this statement doesn’t limit the teams to a maximum of 5 people.  I’d love to hear it because what happened is that teams with more then 5 people won the hackathon. In fact BOTH 1ST and 2ND PLACE HAD MORE THEN 5 PEOPLE ON A TEAM!

I’m all fine with giant teams participating for fun, but when it comes to competition for money real rules need to be followed, or else you piss people off.

So back to my experience at the hackathon, during the final judging phase, a 3 minute presentation to all teams and judges, a team went up with 7 people. Immediately after the presentation I went to the head of the hackathon, and said ‘it says in your rules that only 5 people are allowed per team’…instantly, as if ready to answer this question she spits out…

“That is just a guideline, not a rule”

My heart absolutely sunk as she finished as I instantly knew we’d been had.  The rules were not rules after all, they were ‘guidelines’ and the Hackathon was privately allowing teams to have more then 5 people.  Of course none of this was public information, as it was only after I stormed out of the event that one of the ‘mega teams’ members told me that the Hackathon management said it was fine for them to have more then 5 people…so an inside job where the Hackathon was giving advantages to some teams by allow more people per team. Having more people is a MASSIVE advantage as you can delegate tasks and make everything look so much more professional and polished.

It was at that moment when I truly realized what is going on here. The hackathon isn’t even really a contest, it’s a way that companies can find talent and get some technology projects started.  Companies can see real leadership under pressure and get a free test of how an employee really works.  It’s actually really genius as anyone can look good on paper, the real question is who has the skills to meet random people and team up successfully to build something innovative.

Overall I think the next hackathon is going to be just about working with cool people. The organizers can have their little script and story all planned out of who is going to win and why and how this helps them and the sponsors.  They can have their fantasy that this is a contest all they want, I refuse to play in their politics and want to just build cool technology that isn’t tied to any specific master. I just wish that the organizers would either treat it as a real contest or just call it what it is, an elaborate recruiting and development play.




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