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Please don’t organize ‘fun’ activities at hackathons

It’s often done with the best of intentions. The organizers and emcees at hackathons look at a bunch of geeky people hunched over their laptops or Arduino kits, looking serious and brooding. Clearly, they have to introduce some fun! So, at a regular schedule of about an hour and a half, the developers are compelled to set aside their work and join in some ‘exciting’ activities.

Having attended quite a few hackathons, others and I have repeatedly given this feedback to the organizers — organizers, who often tend to be conducting one for the first time or who have not themselves been participants at hackathons. These well-intentioned, ‘fun’ activities are distracting, disruptive, and totally dysfunctional. Please don’t conduct them. Or if you must, do it outside the hack-hall and let those who want to volunteer for it alone join. Moreover, don’t character assassinate anybody who doesn’t join in for being overly nerdy.

Would you like it if your colleagues forced you to join in for fun games frequently when you are trying to put together material for a presentation to management later that day? And then maybe even called you a bore or boorish for avoiding it? Have you seen MasterChef? In the few hours that they have to cook up a multi course meal, do you see them looking serious and focused? Tensed even? However, do you see the organizers interrupting them every couple of hours to play a round a of dumb charades or Pictionary for ‘fun’? Or at a professional game of chess? Do you see the commentators running up to the stage and asking the players to hold hands and do silly handshakes or jumping exercises?

Coding is inherently fun to a lot of people, more so the kind of people who take time out from their personal lives to be at a hackathon. There is excitement in working with technology and in attempting to solve problems. It might not look like that for people who are not in it, and if you don’t understand that intuitively, I honestly understand. But take it from one among us that it is fun. Whereas, somebody interrupting our flow of thoughts or some focused, intense work is more likely to be aggravating.

In the short time that we typically have from the start to the end, the team (and sometimes there is only one person in a team) has to come up with a good idea, convince others to join them, design a solution, choose technologies, implement, integrate, test, fix bugs, make presentation slides, prepare a presentation talk, practice it, occasionally demo to the walk-by judges, polish the final delivery, create a catchy video, eat a few meals, etc. Apart from that, a very important part of hackathons for me: networking with other participants and discussing the hacks we are working on. It’s a lot of hard and smart work, and every minute is valuable. Do you think we’d appreciate half an hour being forced into a game of ‘Pin the Donkey’s Tail’?

As an organizer though, keep avenues for breaks and break-out games ready. Uno cards, a ping-pong table, boxing gloves and a punching bag, a Playstation console, darts, … there is a lot you could put about. Let people discover and use them when they want. When participants want to take a break, they will gather around these things, have discussions, meet others, and make for a more effective and fun hackathon.

p.s. Another activity organized is talks on different subjects. Again, all with good intentions. Not as insidious as mandatory fun, but I’ve found this also to be disruptive. Every body is herded into another room where they have arranged a speaker, and the organizers make repeated rounds of the floor to force the whole bunch of, now groaning, developers to fill the seats. If you’ve got a stellar speaker, have him/her talk at the beginning or the end. Any other time is best avoided.

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