Prize fighters: How prizes are killing hackathons

More hackathon organizers are giving out big prizes, which some developers think is a bad idea

hackathon_prize-600x450_0.jpgImage credit: flickr/Yusuke Kawasaki
Sure, giving out a big, fake check is fun, but does it make for a better - or worse - hackathon?

Next week at their annual Dreamforce user and developer conference in San Francisco, Salesforce will be hosting a hackathon at the end of which they’ll be giving out a first place cash prize of $1 million. This high stakes competition is the latest in a growing number of hackathons that are offering bigger and bigger prizes, including the LAUNCH Hackathon just last week, which offered $1.6 million in cash and prizes, and GlobalHack’s recently announced plan to give away a $1 million first prize in a new series of annual hackathons.

Companies and organizations offering high value prizes to developers for spending a day or two doing what they love best - coding - is surely a good thing, right? What’s for programmers not to like about that? Well, depending on whom you ask, it may not be the best idea in the world.

When I heard about the Salesforce hackathon a few weeks ago, it made me wonder if there were developers out there who weren’t in favor of hackathon prizes. Indeed, I found a number of software engineers writing on blogs and discussion boards about why hackathon organizers shouldn’t give out prizes (or judge entries at all) or, at least, shouldn’t emphasize them so much.

Here are a number of reasons offered as to why prizes make for bad hackathons:

Prizes change the focus of a hackathon

To many people, the point of a hackathon is to come together with other like-minded folks to work on solving an interesting problem, share ideas and learn from each other. By offering prizes, this can discourage people from being as open about what they’re doing and make connecting harder. Judging results, in general, can make what’s meant to be a fun, collaborative experience less of both.

"Prizes are the icing, and I contend that when your eyes are on the icing, it’s to the detriment of everyone." Edward Kim
"Hackathons are 24-plus hours of intense, focused coding. Following up that technical focus with a sales pitch really seems like a waste and encourages the participants to work on projects that work best in a market place rather than solve interesting problems or explore interesting ideas." ideonexus
"Remember, people are there to enjoy themselves, and code whatever they think is a good project. Don't judge." Codeyman

Prizes can encourage cheating

Prizes turn hackathons into competitions, and when people compete, some may be tempted to cut corners or do whatever it takes to win. The larger these prizes get, the more likelihood cheating will occur.

"...the stakes are becoming too high to ignore the notion of cheating at hackathons…. I think it’d be great to see hackathons ... offering trophies/medals/certificates to honor hackers’ efforts instead of cash or new laptops for prizes." Kevin Conley

Corporate hosted hackathons with prizes feel more like a job - or exploitation

When companies begin dangling the prospect of money in exchange for coding, developers begin to get suspicious that they’re just being used. At what point does it really become a job, which most attendees end up doing for free?

"I've seen major companies ask for more and give less. My friends seem to like the "opportunity". I avoid it. Seems like exploitation to me." Anonymous
"I've gone to other events where someone is trying to harness a hackathon to achieve some particular end and pass out prizes or something, and in general I've been bored out of my mind. If I want to go work with some fixed group of people on some fixed task I can do that. It is called a job." Edward Kmett

Prizes can ruin the whole experience for non-winners

Prizes are great - if you win. Not so much if you don’t.

"Having one team go home with enormous prizes and many other teams go home with nothing may sour the end of the event." Hack Day Manifesto

So, maybe big hackathon prizes aren’t the greatest thing since sliced bread. What’s your take? Do you like hackathons that give out prizes or do you think it’s a bad idea? Let us know in the comments.

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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