What’s the point of a hack day?

I get asked constantly what my favourite app was that was built at any of the many hack days I have run through Rewired State. I am often ashamed that I struggle to answer, although there are many. This is because hack days are rarely about the prototype.

To cover briefly what a hack day is, it is:

  • one or two days long (often belying the name)
  • any number of developers, for me a minimum of 10 devs are needed to make it buzz a bit, but 20+ makes it exciting
  • a subject, challenge, dataset (the broader the better)
  • developers are given a brief of the subject or challenge at the beginning of day 1
  • they code/design/engineer over the course of a free form period of around 24 hours to create prototype solutions or ideas
  • they present back to their hack peers and any inquisitive viewers, as well as the sponsor, client or group who put the event together
  • prizes are awarded
  • beer and pizza is essential

Many people will not experience a hack day, but if you can, please do. Show and tells are usually open to anyone who wants to attend and twitter and lanyrd are quite good at curating such event information.

However, the reason for this blog post is to explain the point of a hack day, now in 2011 (it will definitely be different in a year’s time, but to chart right now).

If you take a little time to look at the above list of what a hack day is you can understand that the common question might be: yes but what did they make and what happened next?

My response to that is that you are jumping the gun.

What we do at hack days is show you the future. Here’s why.

Why do developers turn up?

Well, in the current climate: API bonkers, information overload (yes devs get that too), tablet shmablet, toy shmoy world that we live in, there needs to be a little peace, as well as a challenge. As I have explained in a previous post about developers it is up to the rest of the world not to risk developer apathy (already here IMHO), and to look at what really matters.

Developers are simply awesome and if you know one I dare you to go try your million dollar idea out on them – they will have deconstructed and reconstructed it in minutes. Tell them your *save the world* idea and they will probably risk divorce to build it for you – please don’t do this.

Developers who know hack days turn up for the buzz, the competition and to learn, mainly to learn. Those who have never been to one come for the challenge.

I have been running hack days for three years now, and one veteran of the Rewired State hack days was at this weekends’ hactivate event. He spent the weekend coding a composting app, it’s cool, you can see it and many more here. But the big thing for him was spending 1.5 hours playing with a web server, in peace, legitimately, on a Sunday (and learning). Another group (and this is usual for a hack weekend) were hack day virgins, and have adopted the amaze-balls face of pride at what they can actually build when challenged by time (hack days are ruthless) as well as taking home the contact details of the colleagues who are as talented as themselves, at other stuff.

One developer gave himself this hack weekend as a Father’s day present. To have a weekend to spend with his peers, although coding was his day job, to work on his own projects, surrounded by like-minded awesomes, fed, watered – that’s the point.

Most developers will leave a hack day with new knowledge or at least new contacts, that can lead to extending their ability to deliver the awesomeness.

It’s probably fair to say that most would not admit to being so excited by the non-coder audience blinking at what they have managed to create in a two-day period, nor the prizes showered upon them. And, from those I know, it is always the afterthought – although I am now really clever and spend my life finding flipping brilliant geek prizes that they can’t ignore :).

Which is why it is important to understand all this before you ask: what is the point of a hack day?

What’s in it for the non-coders/organisations/brands?

So, there is an immediate and very obvious benefit for anyone engaging a number greater than ten developers on your own idea/API/bit of kit, and hack days seem to be de rigueur. Is not hard to be confident that good things will come of the weekend.

But is it the list of prototypes at the end? That no good hack day host would ever be able to predict?

No, it is engagement with the development community. Gifting your idea/API/bit of kit and enabling some free time for developers to engage with and over said idea/API/bit of kit. Yes of course you will get any number of good prototypes and even working applications – but better you will get to meet a number of developers, showing off their skills and often their newly acquired ones – this is really as rare as hen’s teeth (usually because they are fully employed fulfilling other peoples’ ambitions) engaging over a dedicated period, with peers they may not have yet met, over your technology or challenge. Yes, your super-sexy next bazillion idea might come out of this – but you created the environment for that conversation, that dev-to-dev spark.

But yet…

The thing I have noted today after Hactivate is that the sponsors are actually dedicated to seeing the apps go beyond the hack day. The winning app was one built to try to address human trafficking, and it was created to make the interface so simple that anyone could take it up without needing access to anything too technical; then we could crowdsource peoples’ safety.

The judges are determined – from a human pov, not only the brand they represented – to help collate the necessary charity network information and wherewithall to make it happen. However the geeks who thought it needed to happen and were so passionate about beating human trafficking that they spent their weekend building an application to make people a little bit more safe, found it hard to adjust to the jump of someone actually taking it on and helping make it happen (within 24 hours). Possibly because they had been coding non-stop for 24 hours, presenting to Press, sponsors and co-hackers – more probably because they were not used to their ideas being taken up so strongly and immediately by the kind of brands that can really make it a reality.

Such is the magic of a hack day.

This is why I love hack days… dilemma :)

And so…

The point of a hack day for a developer is to be with like-minded people, work on your own stuff, learn and be celebrated; for the rest of us, it is to create the environment for magic to happen.

Maybe in the next few years they may become simply about the prototype, but I hope that day is a long way off. The point is developers, living and learning from each other in an environment that is created by you: the challenger.

Finally…

As ever, my cry is: please, do not take the piss, developers are for life not just for your *next million* or *save the world* idea. They are an asset to be cherished and nurtured and they do not necessarily always value the same things you do. It is rarely money or jobs – most developers are awash with job offers, and extra-curricular *cash* offers.

Hack days do work, right now, because everyone wins when they are run well and with consideration. But please don’t ask me what my favourite app is that was ever built at a hack day! I can’t tell you, I have no idea. I do however now know 200+ developers whom I would be able to call in a heartbeat, and know their skills, passions and talents – but I would never sell them to anyone.

Developers are a talent to be nurtured in our open data and open society world. Hack days respect this and act as breathing spaces for devs.

It is rarely about the prototype, and when it is, I will probably go buy that flower shop I have been promising myself.

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