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Summary:

If you’ve never been to a hackathon, give it a shot even if you can’t stick it out for the full ride. AngelHack Boston entrants started coding at noon on Saturday and finished 30 hours later. I was there for 10. Here’s what I learned.

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If you’ve never been to a hackathon, you should give it a shot — at least for a couple of hours.  This weekend a few hundred developers converged in both Boston and San Francisco to vie for prizes, peer recognition, and even venture funding, at AngelHack. They started coding at noon on Saturday and finished 30 hours later. I was there for about 10 of those hours. Here’s what I came away with.

1: The social aspect is big

Many participants, and they varied from undergrads to folks in their 40s and 50s, came to see what others are up to, and to network.

Marsh Sutherland, CEO and co-founder of Referral Bonus, loves hackathons because, he said, they make his “brain tingle and adrenaline pump,” and he bonds with new friends. And, he said, “I help create something I’m proud of.”

Andres Douglas, a Boston-based developer who has participated in Facebook hackathons, Music Hack Day and TechCrunch Disrupt events, agreed that it’s all about the people. “It’s great getting to work with new people. It’s kind of like dating. We came with two [team members] and added two here,” he said.

Aaron Roth, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, said he loves the enforced focus of the event.  “You’re working with a team to create something new and great, in a short period of time, and work continuously through the night,” he said.

2: Don’t underestimate the thrill of adventure

There is huge appeal in trying out new things.  “If you’re a developer, this may mean learning a new language, using a new set of APIs or building a product that’s different from your ‘day-job,’” said Jeffrey Peden, founder and CEO of CraveLabs, a Cambridge,Mass.-based maker of social network marketing tools. The same motivation holds with marketers and sales people, he said. They all want to try something new.

Cheryl Tom, whose day job is as a Montreal-based director of front-end development for CrowdTwist.com, said she welcomes the opportunity to hone her skillset and add new expertise. This weekend she learned Facebook and Twilio APIs.

3: They’re great talent pools

Several attendees that are already in established businesses use hackathons to check out prospective programmers and developers. Said Peden: “There is no better way to evaluate folks than to see how they go through a 30-hour, start-to-finish marathon of trying to build something — and it’s not something you can just show up at the end to discover.”

Several attendees said they’d received feelers from prospective employers.

4: They’re addictive

Nearly every AngelHack attendee seemed to be a hackathon veteran.  Sutherland has participated in several Boston Startup Weekends and is helping to build a similar event in Spokane, Wash.

Patrick Leahy, a business student at Penn’s Wharton School, may be an extreme example. On January 13, he was in the 48-hour PennApps 2012 hackathon. On February 27 it was the 72-hour paid hackathon for Wharton MBAs. This weekend was AngelHack. And Tuesday he’ll be aboard the StartupBus Boston for a 73-hour traveling hackathon to South by Southwest.

5: People like prizes

For all the talk of camaraderie and collaboration, free pizza, Red Bull and beer — there are also prizes. Teams get cash money for the best use of APIs from sponsors — Microsoft Bing, Box, Viximo, Twilio — and others.  There’s a free Geeks on a Plane trip. And tickets to the upcoming GigaOM Structure:Data conference.

Asked if the prizes mattered, Penn’s Roth said: “Oh, yeah. Big time.”

  1. Jonah Goldstein Thursday, March 8, 2012

    A quick what “what I learned:”

    People come for very different reasons. Some come for the fun and adventure. Tap into it. There are interesting people. Some come to truly compete. It’s fun in a different way. Either way, there’s enough room for everyone.

    If you want to win, it’s a good idea to come with a plan, and not to hack on totally unfamiliar technologies. We used nodeJS and it really slowed us down.

    It’s very useful to have a designer on board. As the designer of my team, I’m not just building a case for my presence. Having a product that makes sense, is usable, and if possible looks nice, is pretty important.

    Dial in and focus, but also come together to make sure team members aren’t straying from what will really move the product/pitch forward. It’s easy to get super focused on some teeny microcosm that never sees the light of day. Refocus.

    Count on there being problems with the presentation. We didn’t.

    Always have backup plans. If you don’t have one, take a deep breath, reasses, and respond smoothly.

    Move a little. Seriously. Walk around a bit every once in a while. Do some pushups. After 30 hours of sitting and 5 full pizzas and gallons of coffee, you’re body needs some loving. Give it some.

    That’s all. See you at the next one.

    peace

    Jonah Goldstein
    @jgmakes

    (from the @fitgiver team)

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    1. hey jonah… thanks for your input. ijust pinged kennedy over there….

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