The Ethical Hackathon or: How we learned to put on a good hackathon and make hackers happy


It used to be that hackathons were organized by hackers, for hackers. Prizes, if there were any at all, were small. People played more for the glory and the challenge. Plenty of teams formed adhoc, more experienced hackers taking less experienced ones under their wing. A hackathon was a place where you brought that crazy hack you always wanted to try but just never had the time to experiment with. Instead of sitting by yourself on a Saturday, you sat down and worked on it with like minded people … over a couple of beers perhaps, sometimes late into the night.

This wasn’t a utopia that exists only in retrospect, my second hackathon ever our team stopped what we were doing for the better part of an hour to give an aspiring programmer, a woman of color, tips on books to read and languages to learn. As a clueless newbie hackathons helped me build relationships with technical mentors in what is sometimes a closed off, less-than-inclusive community.

A hackathon used to be a nice way to spend a weekend. Networking, socializing, and building … I used to look forward to them.

Now, of course, hackathons have become big business. At first the corporate component was unobtrusive – free food in return for a product demo – but more and more hackathons are being organized by people who have never actually hacked anything themselves. They pull the basic format, pump up the prize money, have legal add a whole bunch of rules to suit their agenda and expect the best and brightest to give up their weekend to work for free.

And as a result not only are hackathons not fun anymore, they’re also becoming rather exploitative.

Reclaiming the Hackathon

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