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Tim Strehle’s links and thoughts on Web apps, software development and Digital Asset Management, since 2002.

Where’s the “9 to 5” hackathon?

To give a little background to a Twitter conversation I had this week:

I came across a hackathon announcement that sounded pretty interesting. It’s scheduled from a Thursday afternoon until Saturday night, with “open ended” hacking starting at 19:30 on Thursday.

I tweeted: “If hackathons weren’t designed for people without a life/family, I’d be in!”

The organizer responded: “Our Hackathon takes only 2,5 days. I guess you could easily find a way to attend :-)”

My answer: “I guess you could easily find a way to “hack” in daytime, sparing nights and weekends :-)”

I’d honestly love to be there. I enjoy being exposed to passionate people and their ideas, and to get creative together. But I’m too old for pulling all-nighters. And I don’t want to miss seeing my kids before they go to bed, and spending the weekend together with my family, unless there’s an extremely good reason to. (A customer’s production system going down is a good reason. A just-for-fun hackathon isn’t.)

The typical hackathon format which assumes or glorifies coding all night feels exclusionary to me. It’s a hurdle for the working single mom, for the introvert (who needs a break after 10 hours of intense socializing), and for us older geeks. I wonder whether you really are after the best ideas and results, or rather want to polish your image with Instagram pics of overcaffeinated hipster hackers. (I’m not judging you. I honestly just wonder.)

Martin W Brennan makes similar points in Why Many Developers Don't Participate in Hackathons: “Alex Bayley discussed her reasons for not loving hackathons […], such as the physical demands of a 24- or 48-hour event (Bayley is 39 years old). This also brings with it health concerns involving poor lighting, ventilation and diet, as well as excessive caffeine intake to stay awake for an unnatural number of hours. […] Age-related exclusions result from older potential participants often having too many real-world responsibilities to take part, but the exclusions seem to extend to gender as well.”

These folks are proposing alternatives:

Will Larson – Healing a Burned Out Team: “Hackathons during working hours are a great opportunity for the team to try out something new, ideally with people on the team they don’t work with as often, and get in some positive experiences together. (I’ve historically been very anti-hackathon because they are so often scheduled in a way [that] prevents individuals with families and external demands from participating, but I’ve since found that they’re pretty effective and purely positive if you can schedule them exclusively during normal working hours over the course of a day or two.)”

Chris Gathercole – Hackathon? No, not yet. Ideas Splurge!: “Hackathons are […] a big commitment from everyone involved (at least two longer-than-9-to-5 days out of the working week). They are […] highly stressful (if done properly) even for the experienced contestants. […] An Ideas Splurge […] is more inclusive, and less off-putting to newbies. […] It leaves folks wanting more, rather than, as with many hackathons, 'well, I’m glad that’s over'.”

Update (2016-11-14): Someone linked to this post on Reddit; here’s a couple of interesting comments. I realize my wording triggers “social justice warrior” vocabulary alert; I’ll try to be more constructive in future blog posts. – Given that “hackathon” is derived from “marathon”, it may be stupid of me to criticize the format for being stressful and tiring :) But the point that I want to make is that when your goal is to bring developers and subject matter experts together to collaborate and innovate (as the Wikipedia “Hackathon” page says), you may be missing out on some valuable contributions depending on the time and format you’re choosing.