The Future of Hackathons

This is a post I have been afraid to write for a while, because I could not find a happy ending for it. I went to my first hackathon, PennApps, in Fall 2011. I did not have any friends in the hacker community yet, so I mainly hung out with dev evangelists and eventually ended up asking a Tumblr evangelist how to apply for a Tumblr internship, which led me to applying to hackNY, which led to me being a hackNY fellow for a summer and a hackNY mentor for two and meeting many of my closest friends and collaborators there. So when the other day my father looked at me and voiced “hackathons changed your life…” like it was some epiphany, I said “yeah…” as if it was obvious.

I have been afraid hackathons will no longer change lives for the better, like they did for me. The idea that anyone can come to a hackathon and build is incredibly powerful. Hackathons have grown so quickly, but at the expense of not putting the work into keeping them inclusive. After my first hackathon, I ended up interning at a startup in the same incubator and office as Tess Rinearson, who ended up writing this piece earlier this year. Tess was one of the first female hackers I became friends with, and reading that piece devastated me. It was the last straw after having so many female friends telling me they no longer would go to hackathons, other female friends telling me about the harassment they endured, reading about others enduring harassment, and enduring occasional harassment myself that made me realize I was not happy being passive anymore. I love the ideals of hackathons. I love empowering people to build things and giving people the tools to build the solution to their own problems. However, keeping any activity at this scale inclusive takes work, and while putting the resources into having the latest and greatest hardware, speakers, programming (I am sad I missed MHacks laser tag), and more into hackathons is tempting, I ask you to think about putting resources towards making sure everyone is welcomed into to the community. I think establishing a culture of inclusion is more important than some of us getting to enjoy playing with new technology $X, while on a moon bounce, listening to a speaker who sold their company for $Y million dollars. Please do not lose sight of the root of what makes hackathons great, powerful, and positive: they can (and should) be a place where anyone can learn, collaborate and build the solutions to problems.

So, what of the future of hackathons? I think it relies on the members of this community stepping up and taking action to make sure hackathons accommodate everyone. I spent a lot of time being overwhelmed by the inclusivity issues in technology, but have recently realized there are ways I can make a difference and contribute. I have been able to do things at the scale of hackNY that I feel have made a difference in inclusiveness. Being able to see the incredibly diverse hackNY fellows class hang out as a single unit and collaborate despite their differences this summer are some of the more rewarding experiences of late I can remember. I have faith in the hackNY community because I know the community will fight for inclusivity. Example: hackNY was one of the first hackathons with a code of conduct, and said code of conduct was put into place by an ally. Not because he was the only one with the ability to do it, but because he was the first to have the foresight and drive to make it happen.

At the time of writing this I am the only female representation in Major League Hacking team and this past weekend I became the first female admin of the 6500+ members and growing Facebook group Hackathon Hackers (which has thus far given minorities in technology a lot of grief). I feel like I have a lot of responsibility for making the hackathon community the better place, and while I cannot do it alone, I do not have to. 

 There has been discussion about hosting a git repository for hackathon organizers in general that would, among other things, have resources for fostering inclusivity at hackathons. Unfortunately, the “other things” have not been published yet, but I have started a git repo with some standards to start iterating on. It includes the code of conduct suggested by Cassidy Williams during MHacks, and some resources myself and others have made during our time in hackathons. I also expect great inclusion efforts to come out of MLH.

Two good things that have come out of hackathons growing this big are:

1. Major League Hacking is emerging as a unifier of hackathons, and this can allow us to set standards across hackathons.
2. People are starting to step forward and say they want to help making things better. However, this is largely being done in a 6.5 thousand person Facebook group, which is not very productive.

How can we do this?

  • Check out the git repository where I started brainstorming hackathon standards. Contribute and/or show it to hackathons you are involved in or that are at your university so they understand what can be done and how.  Get someone to own tasks that would make your hackathon environment better.
  • If you and/or your company is interested in sponsoring hackathon inclusivity, we are in talks of figuring out how to do this and what it would mean. Shoot me an email at to join this conversation.
  • I have received some messages from people losing faith in the hackathon community. I would ask you to have some hope that things can change in the community this year, but that you put yourself and your needs first. I personally believe things can get better given the great, smart, people that do exist in this community.

The future of hackathons is up to all of us. I hope you will join me in trying to push for the standards we deserve.