The Dreadfully Wonderful Hackathon

Dry running crunch culture

If reading about crunch culture struck a chord, you’re not alone.

Posted 25th May 2020

What is a hackathon anyway?

Referencing the culture of “hacking”, a hack-a-thon is a wonderful buzzword that has gained seemingly unstoppable traction even in the dullest of corporate environments. A hackathon is, at its very core, an objective that is being put in front of a group of diverse people, without any clear solution or path, with the only constraint being a strict timeframe.

To put it even simpler, a hackathon is making something, usually to solve some generic issue, within a short time-frame, collaborating with people you may or may not know.

If it already sounds thrillingly unhealthy, you’re on to something.

The crunch culture

Software development and the whole IT industry have developed, over time, a deep and twisted love for the “crunch culture”. While many high-stakes, high-profit industries have deadlines that carry an extensive amount of weight (and potential failure), IT and the software life cycles specifically are addicted to setting goals that adhere to business rules, by making broad assumptions about those deadlines being feasible.

Game developers are infamously known for sacrificing weekends, families and beds, sleeping at their desks and filling up on take-away for days on end, just so that their products get released on the coveted date, lest they disappoint and enrage armies of teenage zealots.

Agile (iterative) development should provide an escape hatch but it still can be twisted to unrealistic expectations and, in the ongoing conflict between business and engineering, talks about unknown unknowns usually fall on deaf ears.

Effectively, crunch culture takes an element that, applied sparingly, can bring out the best in a developer – pressure – and morphs it into the performance killer – stress.

When the pressure is towards tasks that are high-stakes but, at the same time, infeasible (too complex, too many, not enough resources, burnout), applying further additional pressure only further degrades the quality of work and life.

Are we all insane?

If reading about crunch culture struck a chord, you’re not alone.

Comparisons between hackathons and the worst standards of the software industry abound are everywhere and focus on the parallel between the very strict deadlines, the lack of efficient planning, the physical involvement and abnegation that often come with hackathons and even the blurred line between pressure and stress.

Hackathons clearly aren’t healthy and, unless someone thrives in a toxic environment they look like the stuff of nightmares. Yet these things pop up constantly, from game jams to disciplines that typically snicker at the software guys - psychology, social sciences and (shocked gasp) liberal arts.

So, we are all insane, aren’t we?

Actual benefits of a small dose of Hackathon

Every participant in a hackathon has a different idea of the benefits, and many of those benefits are also directly or indirectly connected to the specific hackathon, but, broadly, hackathons can bring out even some of the “best” parts of the IT culture.

  • Pitch the impossible Wild, outlandish ideas can be laid down in the discussion phase, evaluated and potentially even put up for implementation. Software development, as all business ventures, is only as adventurous as its funding is loss-tolerant and infinite. A hackathon is a closed bubble where failure still carries a reward.

  • Hacking mentality boost Without a clear plan, path and constraints, there is an incentive in applyingto apply at least the core ideas of the Hacker’s mindset. While this word has usually come to indicate a solution that just barely works together by stringing a chain of flimsy implementations that sort-of get the job done, the underlying ethos is to maximize the output with the given input, by putting one’s observation skills into overdrive and looking at ways to use things not for what they were designed but by which function they perform.

  • Communication Galore There is no better place to crash course communication than at a hackathon. Particularly with people you don’t know and especially under pressure it is crucial to communicate effectively, swiftly but, more than anything, all the time. It’s incredibly easy to derail a high-speeding endeavor with a misunderstanding and, as much as failing in this department can result in interpersonal detonations, the accrued bits of experience might be priceless in an industry that works in silo-ed compartments way too often.

  • Hopefully achieve something
    “Achieve” can be here substituted with “learn”, “produce”, “pitch” or any actual personal or team goal. The end results of a hackathon, with having very little time to pitch something that has become emotionally important for the whole team, and the eventual loss (not guaranteed, but usually hackathons have only one winner, so the odds are often against everyone at the same time) are gruesome. But making something, learning something, taking away the experience, added industry connections and even just the bragging rights can keep someone elated for weeks on end.

Keeping your sanity

You should, definitely, go to a hackathon. Also, you absolutely should choose a hackathon that you like, doesn’t matter irrespective of if it’s a field in which you are proficient in or just tickles your fancy.has only just begn tickling your fancy. Enthusiasm is what fuels the process, competence at most drives it, and, chances are, someone at the event will be competent enough.

Before even going, you should get your affairs in order. You likely probably will not die while coding away, but you will have to either explain to society why you want to avoid hygiene and healthy food for a while or make peace with the fact that you probably need at least a couple of pit-stops.

And, finally, once you get there, just remind yourself, relentlessly, that whatever happens your takeaway is the hackathon itself. Prizes, skills, contacts are icing on the cake. The ability to channel your inner, limitless, hacky hero is the cake itself, and you should moderately gorge yourself on it, and take away this digestion to the real world which, write this down to a post-it and stick it on your laptop, a hackathon is not.

Enjoy (responsibly)!

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