Gitex 2015’s 24-hour hackathon

With Gitex’s 24-hour hackathon around the corner, here’s what you need to know

GITEX Hackathon

Here’s a chance for developers to make Dh20,000 in just 24 hours. All they have to do is code an app that will wow the judges at this year’s Gitex  hackathon. Called the GTX App Hack, held from October 20-21, it includes three categories — Best Smart Citizen/Resident Project, Best Smart Aviation Project, and Best Smart Education Project. Teams that land the second and third prizes will walk away with Dh15,000 and Dh10,000 respectively.

And if you are good on SAP’s HANA platform, you could win access to the SAP Learning Hub Customer Edition, worth Dh74,400.

As the organisers of the event note, “The hackathon provides an environment for disruption and creative ideas: the essential tools for innovation.”

Hackathon it is

The open source OS company, OpenBSD is credited with creating the word hackathon — a mash-up of hacking and marathon — back in 1999, when it asked ten developers to come up with a cryptographic solution. The same year Sun Microsystems, at its annual JavaOne conference, challenged developers to a hackathon for coding a communication tool for the Palm V PDAs.

Though these events are also known as codefests, hack days, code days or hackfests, they typically start in the evening and go on for 24 hours, sometimes 48 hours or more.

But over the years hackathons have morphed from keyboard-mashing code fests into robust platforms for brainstorming on diverse topics. A cursory glance through SlideShare, a leading online repository for presentations, reveals users have uploaded decks on hackathons for health, HR, management 2.0, marketing, UI/UX design, IoT and fintech.

Companies such as AngelHack, Tech in Asia and TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathons have spread the concept globally, and events like Over The Air for mobile apps, Science Hack Day, Music Hack Day and TV Hackfest have drawn in crowds as well as corporate sponsors. Taking the idea further are companies such as Startup Weekend that promises a no-talk-all-action approach to launching a start-up in 54 hours. Of course, every major technology company and university conducts in-house hackathons. Nasa too is on board with the annual International Space Apps Challenge.

Food for thought

In the first week of last month, AngelHack held its eighth season “where thoughts become things” at the New York University, Abu Dhabi. The challenge was to build innovative apps for a couple of technology products. Up for grabs were $100,000 (Dh367,000) in sponsor prizes, swag bags, “games, games, and more games to keep you pumped” and, not to be missed, “awesome food, lots of it”. The event was also a test of the participants’ “ability to easily process immense amounts of Red Bull”.

Interestingly, in a deck on SlideShare titled Zen and the Art of Hackathon, the author offers a blueprint for a successful hackathon — apart from smart participants, great challenges and bumper prizes, it is apparently fuelled by vital ingredients such as pizza, Red Bull, full buffet meals and “an all-night music playlist”. It seems the occasional massage also helps. Though the jury is still out on exactly why pizza has taken over as the “King of hacker food”.

Just do it. Quickly

In a June 2013 interview with The New York Times, Jon Oringer, CEO of Shutterstock, revealed that hackathons played a big role at his company. They were “fun” events where people could build anything they wanted — “it could be crazy, practical, whatever”. Shutterstock actually ends up implementing many of these ideas. “It pushes a lot of thinking,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing what people can get done in 24 hours. Sometimes we talk about a new product feature and it can take three months to build. Then someone will prototype it overnight.” Companies often tend to overthink things. Just sitting down and doing it usually turns out to be more efficient. “So it’s a good reset point for us every year to remind us, ‘Yeah, we can just get things done quickly.’”

Hack all the way to…

But the most famous example of a company besotted with hackathons is Facebook. Former engineering manager Pedram Keyani says the impromptu nightlong coding sessions morphed into official hackathons in 2007 and have become one of the most exciting opportunities people have to make a major impact in a short period of time. He reveals that every couple of months, “a few hundred of our engineers unleash their talents in epic, all-night coding sessions and often end up with products that hit the internal and external versions of the site within weeks”.

The list of features to emerge out of hackathons includes the Like button, Photos, Facebook Chat and Timelines.

And as Facebook’s official page on hackathons observes, “Hackathons are a big tradition at Facebook. They serve as the foundation for some great (and not so great) ideas. It gives our employees the opportunity to try out new ideas and collaborate with other people in a fun environment.”

The company also holds regular sessions in offices across the world, which eventually culminate in a big annual event called The Global Hackathon Finals, held at its HQ in Menlo Park, USA.

GITEX’s Hackathon: It’s all about creation

In its original IPO filing, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously protested against the misuse of the word hacker. In popular perception, it conjures up images of an evil person breaking into computers and stealing data.

“In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done. Like most things, it can be used for good or bad, but the vast majority of hackers

I’ve met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world,” Zuckerberg wrote.

So it was rather apt that the night before Facebook’s big IPO day, the company held the biggest hackathon in its history, where thousands of employees spent the night in the office, coding up a storm.

And next morning, they cheered Zuckerberg as he rang the Nasdaq Stock Market Opening Bell remotely from the Facebook HQ. Perhaps that was the best way to conclude the hackathon.