Dev

The rise of the hack

I didn’t know it could be someone’s job to attend hackathons. I hadn’t heard of a developer evangelist before, so a year ago when I stumbled across an opportunity to become one, I was drawn by its novelty.

The mission was to build a developer community from the bottom up by saturating the hackathon scene, gaining allegiance from the early-adopters, the enthusiasts, the hackers. The kind of people who geek out over a new JavaScript library, smother their MacBook Airs with stickers, and maintain wardrobes consisting primarily of startup t-shirts.

If the goal is to build a business on an API, were hackathons the place to start? I wasn’t sure. The tactic seemed so niche. But hey, if someone wanted to pay me to travel and build weekend hacks, that sounded fun to me.

My first hackathon surprised me. I expected it to be quiet and secluded, consisting of the most die-hard geeks, an exclusive community disconnected from the outside world.

But it wasn’t. It was inviting. It was cool. It was a spot for anyone with an entrepreneurial itch to try something new, from bankers to artists to lawyers, all sprinkled amongst designers and developers of all skill levels.

I expected it to feel underground, but it didn’t. Microsoft and Amazon, among other high-profile sponsors, pitched their tools, platforms, and APIs to an eclectic group of would-be world-changers.

I realized after that first event that my weekend calendar was not going to be free for a while. There was no shortage of events to attend or companies wanting to throw sponsorship dollars at those events.

I travelled to hackathons in Dallas, Portland, Boulder, Chicago, Las Vegas, Seattle, DC, and Boston, among others. Every city I went, I asked them the same question: what’s the tech scene like here?

Every time I got the same response: It’s growing.

Everywhere I went, people told me that their tech community was thriving, that their city was going to be the next big tech hub. A year ago there was nothing. Now there were incubators, investors, meetups, and new hackathons popping up every month.

It quickly became clear to me that hackathons are not an outlandish trend, popular only among techies in Silicon Valley and NYC. They are a national phenomenon.

So I asked 150 hackathon attendees, hosts, and sponsors from across the country what they thought about the rise in hackathons. I found some interesting things:

  • Why they go: Learning (85 percent) and networking (81 percent) were the top two reasons, followed by changing the world (38 percent) and winning prizes (28 percent). More people are interested in the tech scene and want to learn to code but this community has many people who really have big, ofter altruistic visions. Hackathons offer newbies an environment to learn from experienced coders while building something tangible. Some of those hacks have turned into real businesses, like GroupMe, Launchrock, Zaarly, and Foodspotting.
  • APIs are a core strategy: 78 percent of event attendees said APIs are becoming an increasingly integral part of their business strategy. They attend hackathons to increase awareness (56 percent), partner with other cool brands with APIs (75 percent), and build a showcase of apps using their API (56 percent). Since hackers are driven to go to these events, hackathons are a good place to get in front of early adopters, get feedback, and gain enthusiasts for a new API.
  • Women are underrepresented: While this is true in many areas of the technology and startup worlds, it was interesting to note that only one in 10 attendees at hackathons are women.
  • So many hackathons: The combination of more people wanting to hack on new projects, and more companies wanting to get their APIs consumed has stimulated a surge in hackathons. The top three reasons why attendees believed there are more and more hackathons going on were: an increased awareness of APIs (46 percent); an increased general interest in tech (40 percent); and an increase in the number of hackers (39 percent).

It will be interesting to see if these findings change over time. Perhaps my company will run the survey again next year. But for now, we compiled our findings into a nice infographic to provide a bit of a peek into what really goes on at those hackathon events.

Jon Mumm is a developer evangelist for TokBox, a San Francisco-based startup that provides an API for live video chat. Follow his hackathon adventures on Twitter @jonmumm.

Top image courtesy of lenetstan, Shutterstock