Think Twice Before Taking Part in a Hackathon

I originally wrote this article for Volume 123, Issue 1 of mathNEWS, after taking part in The Next 36 Wearable Computing Hackathon the previous weekend.

Use it for You

When I think of entrepreneurship, I don’t think about just start-ups. I think about the girl in Civil Engineering selling organic fruits and vegetables at small scale. I think about my dad, whose small “business” selling phone cards (in an era of Skype!) hasn’t made a profit in years. Most businesses fail. So, if you’re telling the average CS student that they should start a business, you’re either crazy or you’ve got externalities.

Hackathon funding is almost completely driven by externalities. Big companies usually want to acquihire you. Venture Capitalists get to see tons of teams execute for the cost of pocket change, and possibly first right to invest. AngelHack is, if I recall correctly, for-profit. The average CS student’s master plan should never include “Win $HACKATHON” as a step; they’re just setting themselves up for failure. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t attend hackathons, but you need to use them correctly to achieve your goals. Use it as a chance to spend the weekend working yourself to near-death with your significant other. Use it as a ship deadline for your next prototype. Use it to get the attention of the Facebook recruiter if you really want to work there. Use it for you.

Focus on finding your “tennis ball” – the thing that motivates you to get stuff done. You’re not too busy to do it. If you really want to watch Shingeki no Kyojin or Suits, you will find time to do it, midterms and assignments be damned. If you really want to spend time with your significant other, you’ll walk half an hour through two feet of snow to do it. If you really want to build a business to solve X, you’ll take that 10% hit to your GPA. If you don’t really want to do it, then go do something that you want. Dealing with regret sucks.

Keep on iterating.