Blog Post

‘Hack weekends treat coders like monkeys in a cage’

Serial entrepreneur Ryan Carson, who has built a series of conferences and education services for web designers and developers in the U.K., says he has had enough of hackathons.

According to him, they’re run by opportunists looking to cash in on the eagerness of young talent for their own purposes:

The problem is that articles like This City Never Sleeps, and Neither do the Hackers and job posts that mention hacker mansions are starting to appear everywhere.

It’s a joke and I’m tired of it. Developers aren’t monkeys in a cage who can’t wait to do the next “hackathon”. They’ve got families, bills to pay and every other pressure that normal people do. They don’t want to drink Red Bull all night and sleep under their desks.

Next time someone asks if you want to crash at their hacker mansion for the summer (which has a ppol, BBQ and pool table!) or team up for a 24-hour hackathon, think twice. They’re probably just trying to cash in on your youth and optimism.

Does he have a point?

I’ve certainly seen the number of them multiply massively over the past few years, which means the quality and intent now varies wildly. Some are good, some are bad. But the general underlying cultural trend definitely seems to be there — the idea that you can (and should) convince a few hackers to develop things in their spare time using a mixture of Red Bull, pizza and some vague dream about building The Next Big Thing.

Sometimes these are great community events that bring people together to do fun stuff; sometimes they feel exploitative — and involvement can certainly be tricky for those who don’t want to buy into macho coder culture.

Over on Hacker News the post has generated some pushback (as you might expect, given that it’s a hangout for people who generally subscribe to this sort of ethos). Butit’s important, of course, to remember that there is no concerted effort here to undermine, and plenty of people happily engage in hack events of all stripes. There is no great Hackathon Authority arranging all of these events, depriving ordinary working stiffs of their weekends. It is simply a confluence of different people all seeing benefits in the same thing.

Is it just a case of calling out the bad seeds?

Photograph of Ryan Carson used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user jeffkward

8 Responses to “‘Hack weekends treat coders like monkeys in a cage’”

  1. Joe Jones

    I’ll believe hackers are being treated like “monkeys in a cage” as soon as someone holds a gun to my head and forces me to participate. Unless these are some new “hack weekends” people are forced to participate in, I’m going to trust the individual to decide for themselves in they want to participate. And just like I’m not forced to participate at all, most hackathons allow anyone to come up with an idea. No opportunist can make me work on his idea over mine.

    If the warning is to watch out for opportunists and protect yourself and your intellectual property, that’s one thing. But that’s not how this article is phrased.

  2. Kin Lane

    I think what your saying has truth in some hackathons. But I think you should go to more hackathons. There are plenty that are not exploitative. Not every hackathon runs all night, and can be very rich environments for idea, networking and collaboration.

  3. I second Martin. Through some very basic lifestyle, time-management and workplace discipline, you can be extremely productive. The other end of this principle is to put yourself on a cycle that produces stress, energy crashes and shoddy work, and ultimately less productivity. This is not to say that a ‘hackathon’-type event cannot be organized around good work habits, but a ‘macho’ culture definitely can be antithetical to these more genteel concepts of how to work intelligently.

  4. Martin Virtel

    The more general myth – very popular also outside the software industry – is that all-nighters are particularly productive. This perception has to do with fewer interruptions after 11pm. If you organize yourself a interruption-free environment, you can be pretty productive at almost every time of day. Especially in the morning.

  5. Joe Taylor Jr.

    I’m noticing a trend among coders to treat themselves like major league athletes: the idea that they have to spend the first ten years of their careers hacking like crazy until they get their World Series ring. Otherwise, they’ll drift sideways into obscurity.

  6. Ryan Carson

    What’s interesting is that the post was #1 on HN for several hours. I think it was a polarizing post as some strongly disagreed and some strongly agreed.

    Usually the difference was the the folks disagreeing where young and excited and the folks agreeing where older and more jaded.

  7. sachin

    The concept of Hack weekends is great… the problem is with the ‘bad seeds’ only as you point out and over selling with each organization trying to have one.
    What started out with Yahoo Hackdays open to all and then with corporate orgs like IBM having their internal HDs, today Hackdays are just everywhere. In a matter of time, the reputation mechanism will gradually separate out the good from the bad, the worthy from the non-worthy events. If the event does not deliver the goods for either the community or for sponsors, the event will lose its advocacy and gets shelved eventually.
    So, for the evangelists: don’t stop short; for the community: pick and participate.