The concept of the hackathon has drifted considerably far from its origin as an invite-only retreat to collaborate on self-directed, open-source software development. This is a term whose meaning has been polluted to mean a design contest, which is just another form of spec work. Since these events only seem to be getting more prevalent, it is perhaps worth analyzing what they were, and what they ostensibly are now.

What Hackathon Once Meant

A millennium ago, the maintainers of an obscure, yet nevertheless important operating system called OpenBSD, cooked up an idea to get all their core developers from all around the world into the same room for a blast of productivity. The event, which has since expanded, has these features:

Invite-only
You can't attend if you haven't been tapped.
Detailed problem set determined in advance
Attendees have a pretty good idea about what they're going to work on, before they arrive, since they're the ones who come up with it.
Cooperative, not competitive
The purpose of the event is to get geographically disparate colleagues into the same room, so they can work together.
Open-source
The work product is a public good.
Attendees are funded
Compensated unconditionally through grants.

I am a fan of these kinds of gatherings. I am considerably more skeptical about corporate slumber parties with Fabulous Cash Prizes™.

So You're Considering It Anyway

Humour me and do this first.

Start with what you would charge a client for the same work: say, an hour. The hackathon is contiguous hours, so be sure to include a stiff premium of for any hours past the first . Again, picture a rich client, in crisis, willing to pay you whatever it took to work nonstop until their problem was solved. According to these inputs, this chunk of your time is worth 5600.

There are people competing in teams. There are people on your team. Prizes go as follows:

I picked these values up from a hackathon that floated through the tubes over the weekend. I have no idea if it's representative, but this whole calculator thing is adjustable, so I encourage you to spend some time adjusting it.

  1. for first prize
  2. for second prize
  3. for third prize

It is worth noting that the largest prize, 2000, is less than the 5600 we determined to be the value of 24 nonstop hours of your time. Even if your compensation was certain and you didn't have to share it, you'd still be accepting 36 cents on the dollar. Sharing with 4 other people? 7.1 cents on the dollar.

Assuming the teams are evenly matched and the judging is fair✱, you have a 30 chance of winning a prize. This puts the expected value of the contest at 350, which of course split 5 ways is 70.

Odds are you could earn more if you spent that 24 hours cleaning out all your storage space and selling what you find on craigslist.

Just for funsies though, let's figure out how big the prizes would have to be in order to balance out an outlay of this size:

Start with the value of your time, which we determined to be 5600, then multiply it by 5 to yield an expected value for your whole team. Then divide by 30 for a total of 93333 in prize money. Using the same proportions, the prizes would be:

  1. 53333
  2. 26666
  3. 13333

That's how big the prizes would have to be to even begin to consider a contest like this, assuming your goal was to win it. It also assumes no other discounts or premia, and that the increased prize money wouldn't attract significantly more people, driving down the odds and jacking up the equilibrating prizes even higher, attracting still more people, and on and on recursively until the whole system equilibrates.

✱ A note about judging: This calculation assumes a lottery-like drawing of prizes, not the caprice of a panel of judges. Because of this, the aforementioned math exercise is useless, except to confirm how comically bad the deal is. One might naïvely assume that the dispensation of prizes would have something to do with merit, but there are good strategic reasons for the patrons not to award a prize to the best work. Indeed, it would be prudent for them not to draw attention to it.

Besides, who's to say the winner wasn't determined before the contest even started?

What They Get Out of It

For starters, the hackathon's patron is getting 50 people to work 24 hours each, which, if they all demanded the same compensation you would for not-a-hackathon, would cost 280000. It is overwhelmingly likely, however, that the whole shebang costs them $10000, maybe $20000 all in. That is a sweet, sweet discount. What did they do to deserve such a generous gift?

The real value, though, comes in the form of intellectual property, which you sign over as the price of admission. Arguably this is the entire point of events like these: harvesting IP.

There is no guarantee you get paid, but the patron unconditionally owns your output. Forget the magnanimous donation of otherwise-billable time: You are literally trading away your valuable ideas for a few slices of pizza.

Putting a price tag on intellectual property is an inherently thorny topic, or I'd have included it in the model above. It's ultimately a bet that what you gain now is worth more than what you give up in perpetuity. We're talking about never being able to use those ideas again, or at least over any time horizon short enough to be meaningful. It's a tough claim that a crap-shoot at a few hundred bucks is enough to cover that.

Other Risks, Negative and Positive

I anticipate arguments that go something like, in this or that jurisdiction, the patron can't claim your IP without properly compensating you for it. I submit that all they have to do to ruin you is try to claim it. The question I have here is how many work-a-day folks can absorb the financial pounding of even the overture of a lawsuit, to say nothing of the suit—and appropriate countersuit—itself. While we're at it: did you also sign a non-compete?

It may seem weird to think about positive risks, but we can think the same way about uncertain events irrespective of whether they're good or bad. I suppose you could argue that events like these are good for networking, or enable you to learn new skills or practice techniques you don't normally get to use, or otherwise gain you some kind of exclusive access, and a shot at some money is just the cherry on top. I don't know, maybe. But I'm willing to bet you could find other gatherings that provide the same opportunities, and don't commit you to such a hefty sacrifice.

Conclusion

It isn't clear that all patrons of so-called hackathons are sinister. Like most comedically skewed offerings, it is far more likely that they simply haven't given it much thought, and are operating on autopilot, using boilerplate terms excreted unthinkingly from their legal department. The fact that they don't seem to have too much trouble filling a room, implies that the people who show up haven't given it much thought either.

I can tell you who isn't in that room.

This is bad, because it reinforces the optics that creative professionals have been fighting for-freaking-ever: that we don't value our own time, so why should anybody else? Moreover—and I waited all the way until the end to say this—what kind of product can you possibly deliver overnight that isn't either complete garbage on one hand, or the capstone on a much bigger, more labour-intensive product you've been working on for some time already? It makes the optics twice as bad, as it implies creative professionals only come in two flavours: worthless or magic.

It is a safe bet that spec work will be a part of the creative professional's experience for the foreseeable future. People who have sophisticated enough language to just ask, in precise detail, for the kind of work we do, don't need us to do it. A lot of effort is involved on our part, to proactively—speculatively—make things we anticipate people will want, or at least similar enough to give them a handle they can grab onto. We can still be smart about it though.

Moreover, you can't just change the scale of a system and expect it to exhibit the same dynamics: Architects and advertising agencies, for instance, spend millions on pitches and contests, involving hundreds and hundreds of practitioner-hours—something as a creative professional you may have experienced first-hand. But the contracts up for grabs are so huge—as are their war-chests—that this behaviour is actually perfectly rational.

At the scale of a single ordinary human, or even a small team thereof, the budget for spec work is considerably tighter. If spec work was a lottery, you'd want cheap tickets offering small chances at big payoffs. The corporate-sponsored hackathon is an expensive ticket with a medium chance at a crappy payoff.

Expected value is Truth. Expected value is God. In the absence of better information it is the heuristic that will quickly tell you if any engagement is four-alarm not worth pursuing, hackathon or otherwise. Corporations will likely continue to insist on sponsoring these events, but calibrating them as above might make their propositions a little less embarrassing.