Growing 'hackathons': code makers, not breakers

Karim Bhalwani, a manager at Yodlee Interactive, speaks

Karim Bhalwani, a manager at Yodlee Interactive, speaks on Feb. 8, 2014, to participants at the hackathon in San Francisco. (Credit: AP / Jeff Chiu)

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SAN JOSE, Calif. - It used to be that "hacking" was just a type of crime, a computer break-in. But today the term is also part of a growing -- and perfectly legal -- mainstay of the tech sector.

Computer programming competitions known as "hackathons" have spread  in recent years as ways for programmers, software engineers and designers to get together to eat pizza, lose sleep and create something new.

During the events, teams huddle over monitors for hours, working up new apps or using computer code to solve the world's problems. Judges select winners, and prizes are usually awarded. This year a record 1,500 hackathons are planned around the globe, up from just a handful in 2010.

"A hackathon is the fastest way to actually do something about an idea," said Nima Adelkhani, organizer of the weekend-long Hack for Peace in the Middle East competition in San Francisco this month.

Yahoo gets recognition for the first official hackathon, in 2005. A new Facebook option that went live last week allowing users more than 50 ways to identify their gender beyond male and female was conceived during a company hackathon four months ago.

This month, the first global hackathon for Black Male Achievement was held in Oakland, Calif. Music Hack Day is coming in Tokyo, and Hackomotive competitors will develop apps in Santa Monica, Calif., that make it easier to buy and sell cars.

"Developers are a rare breed where they get paid a lot of money to do this job during the week, and they enjoy it so much they want to do it more on the weekend," said Jon Gotfriend, who's been going to hackathons for three years.

As such events have become more popular, a set of rules has coalesced. Teams are typically made up of a handful of people. Designs, ideas and even mock-ups can be worked on in advance, but everyone starts writing code at the same time. And teams own whatever they come up with.

The opening of a hackathon can be exciting as challenges, prizes, teams and judges are introduced. But within hours there's a quiet buzz and lots of keyboard clicking as programmers make their ideas a reality.

Participants arrive with sleeping bags, deodorant, toothbrushes, pillows and laptops. By morning's wee hours, pizza, energy drinks and beanbag chairs are in hot demand. By the time the buzzer goes off after 24 or 48 hours, most participants are disheveled and a little loopy.

"There are just four important things you need for a hackathon: food, Wi-Fi, power and people," said hackathon aficionado Mike Swift.

At a competition three years ago, Swift and his friends created Hacker League, a program that helps organizers coordinate events online. In December, Intel purchased Hacker League for an undisclosed sum.

Another hackathon success story is GroupMe, a free online chat program inspired by a project conceived during a New York competition and acquired by Skype in a reported $85-million deal.

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