Warning: That hackathon you're participating in may be rigged

Hackathons that offer big prizes are susceptible to accusations of being fixed, like Salesforce’s recent $1 million competition

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Salesforce and its CEO Marc Benioff have some 'splaining to do about their recent $1 million hackathon

Image credit: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Last month I wrote a blog post about why offering big prizes at hackathons may not be a good idea. Based on discussions in developer forums, I identified four reasons often given against offering prizes at hackathons: it changes the focus of a hackathon, it encourages cheating, it exploits coders and it generally ruins the experience for non-winners. Certainly, not all developers feel this way, but, clearly, at least some do.

That post was inspired by Salesforce’s upcoming (at that time) hackathon during their recent Dreamforce conference, which would be giving out a $1 million first place prize. Well, that hackathon has come and gone and, in the process, it demonstrated another potential problem with hackathons that offer prizes: they just might be rigged.

In case you haven’t been following it, some people are crying foul over Salesforce’s choice of hackathon winner. The winner of the $1 million was UPSHOT, an app for creating Salesforce reports on mobile devices. The problem is, something pretty close to UPSHOT was demo’d more than two weeks before the date on which teams could begin working on their hackathon submissions. To make matters worse, the CTO of UPSHOT is Thomas Kim, a former Salesforce employee.

In addition, it turns out that a team which won $100,000 as one of the runners up to UPSHOT worked for a company named Taptera, a startup in which Salesforce invested $2 million in 2011. To top it all off, a number of developers who participated in the hackathon claim that their entries were never even installed or evaluated.

Salesforce responded to the uproar by promising to review the judging of the final entries. Yesterday they announced that, as a result of the review, they would award an additional $1 million prize to the top runners-up, while also saying in a written statement that the winning teams met the eligibility requirements and that there wasn't enough information provided to the judges to "evaluate final round entrants' use of pre-existing code contained in their app entries."

So, good for Salesforce - I guess - for giving another team $1 million but it doesn't exactly remove the unpleasant smell wafting from the whole thing. It’s made a lot of people angry and makes Salesforce look bad. Does the benefit of all the publicity that Salesforce got from offering such a big prize outweigh the negative attention they’re getting now? Hard to say, unless you believe that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

To me this whole mess just reinforces the idea that hackathons are better off without prizes. In addition to providing participants with the incentive to cheat, they can also provide organizers with the incentive to fix the outcome. In Salesforce’s case, it now appears as if they rewarded a former employee (Kim) and promoted a company they have a financial interest in (Taptera). 

If a company or organization is going to offer such big prizes at a hackathon, the rules better be pretty clear about what’s allowed and what isn’t, they should exclude participants with close ties (either personal or financial) to the organizers and they’d better be totally transparent about the judging process.

But I think it’s better to just bring people together based on their interest in building something cool, solving a particular problem or simply to hang out and code with other like-minded people; leave the prizes - and all the baggage that potentially comes along with them - out of it.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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