The thing about hackathons

  • Just too many hackathons in Malaysia, with results that lead to nowhere?
  • Benefits go beyond just creating startups, say participants and organisers

The thing about hackathonsI’VE always wondered about hackathons, and the role they play in the startup ecosystem.
 
In recent years, the number of such events – gatherings where programmers and designers collaboratively code in an extreme manner over a short period of time – has increased dramatically in Malaysia.
 
From its grassroots developer-centric tone, the hackathon landscape today is littered with those sponsored by all manner of corporate and government entities, with their aims ranging from creating greater awareness to being exercises in potential product acquisitions.
 
The same thought pops up in my head whenever a new one is announced: Hack, and then what?
 
One only needs to look at the case of Owe$ome, a debt-collection and bill-splitting app which won the Malaysian leg of AngelHack in June 2013, to much fanfare and publicity.
 
The team won a trip for two to Silicon Valley, and had a subsequent fundraising campaign to get sponsors for the rest of the six-man team, which hailed from VLT KL, to go as well.
 
For an app that was, by and large, one that many would love to use, in the months since, not a peep has been heard about it, despite proclamations of commitment to bringing the app to market after its hackathon victory.
 
When I spoke to a group of developers late one night, they bemoaned the lost allure of the country’s early hackathon events that were typically hosted by technology giants offering the programming community a chance to play around and go crazy with new tools.
 
“Then the business guys started jumping in and things just started getting messy. Now you can have a team that wins with a presentation, over ones that have hacked together prototypes in 48 hours, which may not always be a smooth demonstration,” said one developer with a wry smile.
 
The thing about hackathonsDhakshinamoorthy ‘Dash’ Balakrishnan (pic), founder of StartupMalaysia.org, argued that hackathons encourage the creation process under constraints, and also to test ventures.
 
“Of course they have merit, Twitter was created in one,” he said, although he admitted that the best target audience for such events is college students.
 
“I believe young people need to be taught two key skills: One, to see problems as opportunities – the bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity; and two, to create under constraints.
 
“Of course, this is to learn the process until they find a problem that won't let them go. This is the venture they will then work on,” he added.
 
Dash also pointed out that hackathons are fertile ground for finding a team member or cofounder, a view shared by Eric Tan, chief technology officer at Maketronics PLT.
 
Tan, who has participated in four hackathons and won the Hackademy KL challenge this year, said he found such events useful as there was a clear goal to chase within the 24- or 48-hour timeframe.
 
“I do think hackathons are a place for new startups because we all have our own ideas; and where else can one find like-minded people who appreciate new ideas and new ways of doing things?” he said.
 
Tan admitted that being awarded trips to Silicon Valley, the grand prize at many hackathons, was a great bonus, adding that winners can also attract other participants to work on their project.
 
Patrick Yong, a tech entrepreneur and Microsoft Most Valuable Professional award winner, also believes hackathons hold value, having organised a couple as well.
 
“I think it is more than just mere fun and each hackathon has its own agenda. The audience is a mix of entrepreneurs, students and some tech ‘gods.’ [From] what I have seen so far, it is a good networking avenue for whatever agenda you have.
 
“I noticed however, that the depth or quality of the work we seen at local hackathons varies. We’ve see some very good products, [as well as] mostly just university-type projects which have no value. Nevertheless it gives newbies [the] experience.
 
“So it’s not the question of too many hackathons – but in Malaysia, we don't see too many new faces. If over the year, you went to four or five, you may have met most of the attendees,” he added.
 
Ngeow Wu Han, chief designer at Mindvalley, believes the key to what makes a good hackathon is facilitation, even though “nothing built during the hackathons comes out of it” apart from some hires.
 
“I think they're okay if facilitated well. Sometimes it's good to just lock a bunch of people together to just do one thing in a sprint, you know, but it's important that everyone generally like each other to begin with,” he said.
 
Ngeow stressed that the role of facilitation should not be underestimated. “What's happening now is that the old people just go and hang out with their old buddies, and the youngsters are too intimidated or ‘millennial’ to break into those cliques. Hence facilitation is important.
 
“I think what hackathons create is more mentor/ mentee relationships and if these lead to startups, it's just a bonus,” he added.
 
StartupMalaysia.org’s Dash concurred, adding “You can't expect to look for a winning venture here all the time.”
 
Yong noted that despite the country having embraced the idea of hackathons entirely, if there is one thing still missing, it is the ‘Open Government Hackathon.’
 
“This is getting popular in the United States and Europe, and if I not mistaken, started by science and tech agencies like NASA. The government encourages people to create something that is of common good and, at the same time, encourages the startup ecosystem in the country,” he added.
 
Getting our coders together to solve national problems instead of creating new apps for telcos? Now that would certainly be something I’d like to see more of.

This column originally appeared in the Metro Biz section of The Star and is reprinted here with its kind permission.
 
Related Stories:
 
Owe$ome and AngelHack: Devil’s in the details
 
Hackademy not just another 'hit-and-run' hackathon
 
‘We’re here to solve the world’s biggest problems’
 
 
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