Over The Hump: Virtual Hackathons worth it?

Many know what a hackathon is. A group of people get together and hack out an application. Combine the idea of a marathon, and its a group of people hacking out an app non stop over a period of time. What then is a virtual hackathon? A virtual hackathon is a hackathon first, but everyone attends electronically instead of in person. Both types of hackathons carry their own unique burdens and considerations. Regular in person hackathons are great; one of the positive notes being access to team members. When you've only done regular hackathons its easy to overlook just how good it is to be able to look to your left or right, and say, "Hey, I'm looking at what you made, here.. EXPLAIN!" and that person be right there saying, "Sure! it's this!" which is the main reason you should in my opinion shoot for an in person hackathon when you can.

In a virtual hackathon you get a different effect. In a worst case scenario, someone's Internet dies and they literally can't participate, or one or more group members take long periods of time before responding. However, barring this, its pretty simple to coordinate using things like google hangout's screen sharing ability (for group coding) and Github for project management. The best part about a virtual hackathon. The Internet has no borders! You can participate from anywhere in the world! so you don't get completely barred from the hackathon based on location. There have also been people with jobs who just absolutely cannot afford to be a part of a hackathon in person; yet, with a virtual hackathon they could be there when they have time and participate from the comfort of their own home.

Some may say, "Well that person who can't be there the whole time can't do anything significant, they don't have enough time!" I'll say this to that... great point, and I don't care. in a hackathon, people power is the only power you have, and 4 hours of someon's time against zero hours is a plus in my book. I had someone find sounds and music in their short time, and I tell you this, it was great music! Also, another one of my team members attended virtually the first and second days then attended in person on the third day! and that third day was great! we got a lot done.

The main consideration for virtual hackathons is how to manage the project. Git resources like github are almost a must since you only have to do most of the coordination when merging branches or or timing commits. Another thing I've found to be great is dropbox (for things that are too large for github clients to upload), and google drive, especially for its ability to allow multiple users to edit a text file simultaneously. Another thing is you have to have a strict schedule for update times. you absolutely have to say at XX O'clock we update, and remove any ambiguity from that statement. Otherwise you can end up with some people missing out on the latest developments. One way around this is to keep summaries in google drive, or maintain a simple app design document in your shared drive, folder, or git.

For the most part I think the ultimate hackathon will be a fusion of both virtual and non virtual.  It will be an interesting thing to setup and get working consistently but it will be the most inclusive type of hackathon imaginable. If someone can't stay in person the whole time, they can then attend virtually. Also if someone comes in late, they can get updated during the scheduled update times. Read the app design document to understand the project, and get added to all online shared resources like, git, dropbox, and google drive. One thing I think was really useful during the IUEE Sacramento Hackathon were the intro to javascript mini sessions, where we taught the basics of javascript and HTML5, i think it would be very interesting to try and setup a webinar version for a Hybrid Hackathon.

Both Virtual hackathons and standard hackathons have their place, and should be considered. If you have the right people who can pull it off though, I think a hybrid hackathon would be the best way to actually make a huge hit and service the most people. However if you don't have the staff for a hybrid, A closed group of in person hackathon participants is still going to foster a great experience that has the potential to inspire people; while the virtual hackathon opens the door to people who can't participate in person or lets you include people from wherever you want. The virtual hackathon would be enhanced by having some group hubs however for those who can group to gain that in person experience, it all comes down to the type of people you want, and how much you are willing to commit to making it a success.



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