I went to my sixth hackathon this weekend, and by now I’ve met all 8 kinds.

First, a quick note about that hackathon: Facebook’s Summer of Hack in Seattle was a blast. There were plenty of things that set it apart from the other hackathons I’ve been to–the relatively relaxed atmosphere and the amazing view were a good start.

But there were also some characteristic hackathon hallmarks I noticed–the energy drinks, the midnight raffles, and of course the 8 kinds of projects you meet at every hackathon. So without further ado, the 8 kinds of hacks:

  1. The Cutting Edge Research Projects
    These hacks are all about pushing the envelope. While the hackers usually aren’t writing new algorithms and libraries themselves, these projects using take preexisting (and new!) open source libraries to the next level. A perfect example of this at the Facebook hackathon would be  MagicMac, which lets you control your Mac with its camera. While things like this have been done before, MagicMac’s gesture choices are particularly innovative. For instance, you can zoom in on your screen by opening your eyes really wide. (Genius!)
  2. The Home Improvements
    Some sites have awesome data but don’t make the most of it–and the hackers behind these projects know it. With these kinds of projects, people improve upon preexisting information. For example, take a look at Footprint–the team behind this hack was frustrated by the way that Facebook’s UI limits how users can look at their location data. So they began exploring different ways to look at it, with pretty fantastic results. In a similar vein, eventhandler  took a new look at the data that Facebook events retain and presented it in a fun and informative way, complete with little alert badges based on event stats. (Going to a hackathon? That’s going to show you the SausageFest badge.)
  3. The Mashups
    Two services are better than one–at least, that’s what these hackers are betting on. (And usually they’re right.) BoxMe is a prime example of this. BoxMe relies on the existing infrastructure of Facebook combined with file hosting services like SkyDrive and Dropbox to make file sharing really easy. A great idea well executed!

  4. The “We Picked Up Three New Technologies In Three Hours” Hacks
    The hackers who build these projects are trying to learn something new, whether it be a powerful new framework, a sweet new library, or even a whole new language. Often people never finish these hacks, or they end up sloppy and buggy–and that’s totally okay. But, as far as I could tell, even the most ambitious learning projects ended up looking pretty polished. Case in point: StarCatcher, which the hackers used to learn new graphics libraries, was eyecatching and well-executed.
  5. The Showoffs
    Cousins of the “New Technology” hacks, these hacks are all about doing things the hard way, just because they can. (I suspect the hackers also enjoy the gasps from the audience when the go up and present.) Webtaka was a perfect example from Summer of Hack. It’s a Tron-like online game, but, as one of the hackers explained, “To make this more fun, we decided to implement the game server in Haskell.” No big deal.
  6. The “Trust Me It Works” Hacks
    The hackers who build projects like this are brave.  Really brave. They walk into a project knowing that they won’t have a pretty face to demo. These projects are usually the most technically challenging and often the only output comes from the terminal. “Trust me, this means it works,” the hackers say. (And I do–and I respect them immensely.)
  7. The Polished Projects
    Occasionally you’ll see an app that looks so polished, so perfected that you’ll be shocked that it happened so quickly. Summer of Hack’s first place winner is a great example of this. Collages isn’t available publicly, so you’ll have to take my word for it–but it was damn polished. The idea was really solid–think Diptic as a “native” Facebook app–and the photo collages that the app produced were really professional looking.They absolutely nailed it.
  8. The Over-Polished Projects
    While the Polished Projects go above and beyond on idea and execution, the Over-Polished Projects go above and beyond on execution only. These hacks are usually simple ideas that have been shined and tweaked within an edge of their lives. These ideas usually aren’t bad, they’re just not terribly innovative or complex. (It’s not quite like putting lipstick on a pig; perhaps it’s more like putting lipstick on a guinea pig.)  As an example, I’ll present my own hack: Drew and I made the Significant Other Remote Control, which uses Twilio to send auto-generated reminders to your partner. Just select the problem (is the toilet seat up AGAIN?!) and the level of anger (are you feeling “loving” or “fucking pissed”?) and send it off with a click. Now, this isn’t a complicated technical problem and it’s not an especially innovative idea. But I spent hours putting every damn pixel in it’s damn place. Like I said–polished within an inch of its life.

So there you have it–the 8 kinds of hacks you’ll meet at a hackathon.

P.S. What did I like best about the Facebook hackathon? Probably the live stream into the New York office. It was delightful to see so many (sleepy) Penn people up on the stream! 

I’m Tess Rinearson, a 19 year old computer science student and hackathon addict. I’m currently a full-time dev intern (at Microsoft) and part-time rabble-rouser. If you liked this post, or maybe even if you didn’t, you should follow me on Twitter and check out some of my most popular posts.



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