Are hackathons good, bad, or overrated?

From Pope Francis to the President’s office, hackathons seem to be the flavor of the day. Over 80% of Fortune 100 and 60% of Fortune 500 companies have hosted or sponsored a hackathon. With rising popularity come criticisms and misconceptions. Having closely witnessed 300+ hackathons and multiple formats (public, corporate-sponsored, University, Internal and Non-profit hackathons) over a period of two years, one thing is absolutely clear.

Hackathon is a very powerful tool for innovation, “IF DONE RIGHT.”

However, there are some misbeliefs and unrealistic expectations.

Corporates exploit developers

The most common criticism is that the corporates outsource their work—the participant being unpaid labor and hackathons being exploitative in nature.

Hackathons are purely driven by passionate developers/ participants. The spirit in which people participate in hackathons is no different from voluntary contributions to open source. It originates from the desire to learn, experiment, solve complex problems, contribute, and build cool stuff.

For such developers, hackathons provide the best platform to showcase their skills, connect with their peers, seek mentorship from the industry experts and get recognized.

Case in point: The recent Tesla hackathon, which aims to solve the two major problematic bottlenecks in the robots. Tesla’s aim here is not to outsource work to unpaid labor. It is to crowdsource innovative solution to the for its pressing problems.

What about the developers? Are they being exploited?

If you have the opportunity to work on cutting-edge technology for one of the world’s leading firms  transforming the face of the automobile industry and take a shot at solving its most pressing issue in 48 hours, it’s more upside than downside for you. A participant has a lot to gain for the time and effort he or she invests.

Apart from the monetary rewards which only goes to a small percentage of the participants, the real benefit for these developers are often intangible. As one of the participants of the recent International Women’s Hackathon 2018 puts it:

We tried to develop an app that helps answer Google forms through voice 'Hear me Out'.  Although we were not able to build a webapp which was what we had initially thought, just a prototype of a desktop app but the process of sitting together with coming up with an idea and coding was fun. In between the fun we learnt through errors and via helping each other and taking help of seniors and peers.  Coding together with chips, maggi, coffee and friends in my room from evening to night and night to morning before the submission was enlightening and enjoyable.

- Disha Agarwal, Participant, Internation Women's Hackathon

Stack Overflow surveyed 25,000+ developers worldwide to find out why they participated in hackathons.

Why do developers participate in hacakthon


Who owns the hackathon IPs?

In over 95% of the hackathons, the IPs belong to the participants. Although a majority of the companies still do not claim IP rights for the products created at a hackathon, there are still a few companies that do.

**But we advise participants to carefully read the T&C before signing up. Companies should ensure they communicate anything that is likely to be different from the usual T&C for such events.

Here is the T&C of a recent hackathon hosted by Intel.

Who owns the hackathon IPs?

Participants owning the ideas/IPs created at the hackathons and companies opting to buy the best ones is however a practice that is mutually beneficial and welcomed.

Here is another variation of the T&C for a hackathon hosted by Procter & Gamble.

Who owns the hackathon IPs?

Employees are obligated to participate in internal hackathons

Companies try to squeeze out innovation out of employees by conducting hackathons and employees are often obligated to participate.

Companies often struggle to come up with ways to engage with their employees in a more meaningful way. Ask any HR Manager or People Director, it is impossible to come up with an activity that pleases every employee.

Hackathon is one particular engagement that hits the sweet spot and many use internal hackathons as a tool for driving employee engagement and fostering a culture of innovation.

Hackathon-a perfect employee engagement tool

Hackathon is one of the very few activities that combine the four essential components of employee engagement. An employee engagement initiative should allow the employees to tap into their passion, enable them to make meaningful contributions to the company, offer recognition, and be engaging.

There could be instances where employees participate out of peer pressure and obligation. But this is not a hackathon-specific issue. Peer pressure at the workplace is common across companies. It is important that companies ensure hackathon participation is voluntary. Constraints might help innovation but not peer pressure and feeling obliged.

Innovations rarely come out of hackathons

The innovations hardly lasts beyond the hackathon. GroupMe and Skype are rare occurrences and exemptions.

The aim of the hackathon is not to create a blockbuster product, conjure groundbreaking innovations, or build a multi-million company in 48 hours. If that is the expectation, then it is clearly wrong.

The objective of a hackathon is to provide an avenue for experimenting ideas, exploring opportunities, and attempting to solve problems. If a company can spot interesting concepts, promising ideas, and creative solutions, it will further go through an extensive and rigorous process of evaluation, testing, and development before it can be rolled out.

A hackathon is a tool to seed the culture of innovation and meritocracy. It abides by the principle of good ideas can come from anywhere. It is just the starting process of the long and lengthy process of innovation filled with uncertainty. This infographic will give you an idea about the role of hackathons in the process of innovation.

Role of hackathon in the process of innovation

Not an effective recruiting tool

Unlike hiring challenges, a hackathon is not a recruitment tool and should not be used as one. Yes, sometimes companies do spot extraordinary talent and end up absorbing them. But it is just byproduct and not a regular occurance.

Neither feasible nor inventive

Hackathon projects are neither feasible nor inventive.

This is a common problem faced by hackathon hosts. The quality of the output does not always meet the expectation. However, over time, we found out that few common factors affect the success of the hackathons.

  1. Defining problem/goal
  2. Providing the right contextual knowledge
  3. Marketing to the right audience
  4. Guidance and mentorship
  5. Setting the expectations right


There is no perfect tool for innovation. Every process, activity and framework has its own merits and demerits. It is important to address the drawbacks. Without participants hackathon is futile. Hence, it is important to ensure the participants enjoy and gain value out of hackathons.

Overall Hackathon is a very powerful tool for innovation, “IF DONE RIGHT.”

About the Author

Vivek Siva
Learned what not to do as an entrepreneur. An optimist with a love for business, the outdoors, and movies. Superpower: Ability to smile even when all hell breaks loose. Affiliation: World of witchcraft & wizardry