The commoditisation of hack days

Far from be a chance to play and experiment sponsored hack days heap pressure on creative developers willing to give their time for free.

A chance to play

At their best hack days are a chance to connect with like-minded hackers (or makers if you favour the modern parlance) and play. By playing I mean experimentation, risk-taking and boundary pushing. Anyone that has attended a hack day cannot fail to feel the creative force of passionate developers striving to innovate. It is like an addictive soma lubricating everything with the energy of progress.

Failure is ok

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

- Samuel Beckett

Hack days should also foster the idea that it is ok to fail. Creativity and innovation cannot happen without failure. Failure teaches much more than success and I’d hold that creative projects very rarely succeed first time.

Developers are creatives

I’ve always argued that developers are creatives. The average developer probably has probably been involved with being a musician, a DJ, an artist, or some other creative pursuit. They are progressives because they understand that the Internet is changing everything and is perhaps the greatest creative platform of our time.

Although the web is eroding management layers developers typically work for someone else all day every day. For any creative a constant stream of delivery is dangerous. The burn out rate for developers, particularly in poorly run businesses with cretinous managers is high. In my career I’d estimate one developer a year I know directly has hit burn out.

Hack days represent a creative transfusion that can re-energise a developer. By stepping out of the constant stream of client or product delivery developers have the opportunity to be free. No tickets, no deadlines, no managers standing over them.

It is no surprise that in giving creatives the opportunity to play great things can happen. Before the sun is up hack days have often created products or made prototypes that can be used by millions.

Typically hack days end by teams or individuals showing each other what they have done. It is an open, collective experience. There might be a winner, there might not. Personally my enjoyment of hack days comes from the creative adrenalin running through my veins every time I do one and seeing how other creative brains work.

Hack days and businesses

Businesses are realising the value of hack days, particularly around innovation. The business where I work ran a successful hack day for a potential client and despite some hesitation the results were universally positive. The client was a full participant in the hack day and created as much anyone else. One of the ideas from the hack day was taken forward by the client and a few months later was released within the business.

From the client’s perspective they got to see how the creative team worked - fast, iterative, release early and often. In a short space of time they realised around 8 ideas to tackle their problem. Developers were given carte blanche to respond to the theme with no expectations. Broadly this experiment worked.

It was noted internally though that this was fundamentally changing the purpose of a hack day from the chance to play to the chance to win new business. Clearly this is a very fine line and instantly changes the dynamic of a hack day.

This week the business is holding an internal hack day and whilst the spirit of play will be prevalent commercial concerns are creeping in.

We want to create something that gets the widest possible audience.

So in one day it is inferred is that something with marketing relevance for the business needs to be created.

Hack days and corporations

Increasingly large corporations are sponsoring hack days and offering huge prizes. Salesforce recently ran a Hackathon offering a prize of $1 million. Salesforce clearly wanted developers to innovate on top of their APIs and platforms and put serious cash up to incentivise developers to do so. Some analysis is less forgiving about the motivation of corporates with these kind of events:

Corporate-sponsored hackathons are all-win for the sponsoring company. They get a big influx of fresh ideas, and developers working themselves to illness (not quite death, but a diet of soda and pizza, plus sleep deprivation and being sedentary for long periods is the definition of unhealthy), just to meet a crazy deadline. In return, the company puts up a couple prizes which is far far less than what it would cost them to get the same result in-house, paying developers fair wages, assuming they even have developers of the caliber that their hackathon might attract. On top of it all, it’s also a recruiting event for the company.

- Alicia Liu

The event attracted more controversy after the judging. The judging process was entirely opaque and the winner emerged as a former Saleforce employee.

I don’t know about you but I’m annoyed that Thomas Kim CTO, UPSHOT was formerly an engineer at Salesforce for 9 years! #salesforcehack

- @preillyme

After accusations that the whole event was rigged Saleforce quickly moved to award a second $1 million prize.

What hack days offer corporations

Hack days offer corporations a massive pool of talented creatives. They have the opportunity to throw their products (API’s, hardware) at the very brains that will make them a success. But it goes beyond that. Corporates can throw their business problems at developers with a no win, no fee mentality. For developers chasing a bounty they know the deal they are getting into but it fundamentally changes the spirit of play and experimentation a hack day. It is no longer fun. It is deadly serious.

Hackathons and hack days are everywhere now. Corporations from outside the technology sector are running events. In January McDonalds will be running a hackathon event in London. The event has some lofty aspirations.

It’s time to build a better community. Together. In just 24 hours, you could change the way we interact at McDonald’s

This event isn’t really about community. It is about creating software to sell more burgers, more quickly. The event features prizes and the chance to receive ‘Incubation/mentorship with McDonald’s Europe’. A cynic (and I will give McDonald’s a chance here) might argue that this is just product direction for their business requirements.

Essentially this is one big product protyping session for Mcdonald’s harnessing developers’ time and energy for a fraction of what they would pay an expensive management consultancy to do the same job. We are long way away from the spirit of play and creative freedom.


Creativity has always sat cheek by jowel with business. Look at any major city and you will find that innovative creativity is situated close to financial centres. The creative hotbeds of Hoxton, Shorditch and Old Street in London are just a short trip from the towering financial instituions in the City of London. The relationship is symbiotic, necessary and eternal.

When I started participating in hack days there were no commercial concerns. If there was a prize it was something trivial - champagne or simply the adulation of your peers. Commercial concerns instantly change what a hack day is. It is no longer the chance for an individual to take a creative holiday and play with whatever they want without fear of failure. There is no rest from creative burn out in this context.

As hacking becomes a commodity to be bought by businesses and corporations it changes the idea of a hack day entirely. The freedom to experiment and play is lost as huge prizes heap pressure on pizza-fuelled, sleep-deprived participants. At worst it is a cynical way to exploit developers to solve business problems and innovate for free.

Developers know they need time to remove themselves from the vacumn of client or product work. As Hack Days become commoditised and more businesses and corporations enter the space I just hope developers are savvy enough to know what they are signing up for.


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