Hackathons are bad for you.

I love developer communities. I love the spirit, the comradery and energy. But in the last couple of years or so, Hackthons have spread through the community like a plague. There are Hackathons around technologies, ideologies and everything in between. And I feel there is an urgent need to eradicate them.

Here is my main beef with Hackathon. They’re encouraging and spreading a perverse culture of unhealthy lifestyle and unsustainable workflow which has been made popular by sensational media and film.

Here’s a standard recipe for a Hackathon.

  1. Gather a bunch of developers in a location.
  2. Supply them copious amounts of junk food, booze and caffeine.
  3. Tell them to get cracking for 24hrs.

Sounds familiar?

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Sleep

There is an almost masochistic take on sleep deprivation in the developer community. (It might be true with other professions, but let’s focus on the devs.) Working late into the night and not sleeping for days is lauded and almost considered a necessity by many these days. Hackthons, many of which last 24hrs, only serve to glorify that.

It is well-known that sleep deprivation has only negative effects on health. Sadly, popular culture in the community has only strengthened the indifference towards health. Y-combinator’s popularized (and prefered?) archetype for founder/developers who eat ramen and code into the night, or the life of Mark Zuckerberg as showcased in the movie The Social Network only make things worse.

And leaving long-term health out of the equation, lack of sleep hasn’t been known to improve your focus or the ability to be logical or creative, all of which are critical skills for developers.

When was the last time you wrote a piece of code while being totally sleep deprived, and looked at it after you woke up to say it was the most beautiful, elegant and awesome piece of code you’ve ever written?

A good nights rest and a fresh mind are critical for a good developer, that’s one thing that Hackathons completely miss.

Food and Drink

Next to sleep, your body needs good fuel to keep going. And NO! I don’t mean coffee. As much as I love my coffee, binging on coffee, red bull or is rarely good for focus. Not to mention alcohol, which makes matters worse.

It’s a short-term vs long-term trade-off. Coffee (and possibly alcohol, although I am skeptical abt it), do help you feel more focused in the short-term. But both caffeine and alcohol are diuretics and only make you lose more water in the long-term. A dehydrated body isn’t much of a help when you need your brain to focus and solve problems. “When was the last time you saw an isotonic drink at a Hackathon?”

Junk food isn’t much of a help to that. I am not even going to touch on long-term effects of eating high carb diets. The usual Hackathon menu of pizza and candy is full of carbohydrates. While sugar highs are great for short-term focus (maybe??) you tend to feel hungry very quickly after a carb heavy meal. That only means you going around for another round of pizza/candy etc. Not really the best way to focus is it?

Sedentary lifestyle

More and more research is showing a link between a sitting lifestyle and health issues. Developers are unfortunate to have a job which is inherently sedentary. Hackthons again make it worse by inciting developers to sit at the same place for 24hrs. “I’m sure your back will thank you at the end of that!”.

And what’s worse is since most Hackathon are held on weekends, the one day you usually get to be active is also spent being sedentary.

Distraction

Hackathons are distraction. There are a ton of things going on. People are talking, discussing ideas, giving talks or just hanging out. All that is competing for your attention while you need to focus. Add caffeine to that mix and that’s one hell of a party on thought in your mind. Noise cancelling headphones help, but then what’s the point?

Solutions?

I’m pretty sure there are better ways to organize hackthons. Having them over 2 days of 12hrs slots would be an idea, to combat sleep deprivation. Supplying and encouraging healthier eating and drinking options would be really useful. Fruits, nuts, and other healthy food are options. Similarly with drink, having access to isotonic drinks and lots of plain water should be a priority. Encouraging participants to do physical activities like calisthenics or just going out for walks on a regular schedule are options to consider.

But in the end, I really feel that Hackathons are beneficial less as a place and time to code out your next big idea, but more of a time to mingle and bond with the community. It’s like a gathering of the tribe. And personally, there is more value in that than actually developing anything.

TL;DR; : Hackthons promote unhealthy lifestyle. If you’re organizing one, urge your participants to hydrate regularly, eat healthy meals and take regular breaks where they do some type of physical activities.

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61 thoughts on “Hackathons are bad for you.

  1. I completely agree with your point of sleep deprivation and poor diet but isn’t that more of a college culture as opposed to something being promoted by Hackathons. I don’t participate in hackathons (personally i don’t believe I have the ability to build something phenomenal in 24 hours) but I have done numerous night outs, either working on a research project, working on a website, or at times even preparing for the exams.

    This I feel is because one tends to have creativity/productivity in bursts, though I don’t consider it right and try to get back to a normal routine, but these all night hacks can sometimes be good to just get things done.

    Reply
    1. I agree some of that tends to be dependent on a person to person basis, and some on your lifestyle. If you slept in till 12pm that morning, you’ll be better off pulling an all-nighter than if you’d woken up at 6am. But I don’t see it working for a majority of people on a given day.

      I’ve had my fair share of long sprints which took me late into the night. But still feel the quality of the code I’ve written tends to decline rapidly as the amount of hours I am up increase.

      And on to your point of getting things done, yea, I guess it can work with random semi-brain dead stuff like documentation or repetitive work, but I’m pretty sure if I design a new tool or library while I’m sleep deprived, I’m gonna wake up and regret.

      Reply
  2. Ha. way to focus on the 1% downside of a hackathon.
    The energy, collaboration, exposure to new technology, people, ideas, creativity … far outweighs the cons here. No one’s forcing you to stay until 5AM and eat nothing but skittles and trail mix.

    Reply
  3. Couldn’t agree more. And while we’re adding, can I extend this to apply to everyday life as well? Junk food and red bull are NEVER good for you, and yet I see far too many people building their lives around them. I know for a fact that my best code is always written when I’ve gotten enough sleep and eaten healthy… so why would I ever do anything different. Choosing to participate in that behavior is like choosing to show up late to work everyday: counterproductive.

    Reply
  4. “Having them over 2 days of 12hrs slots would be an idea, to combat sleep deprivation”.

    If you do this it would be worse, the hackathon would become a 48-hr one. You can’t stop some one from doing something cool and ask them to take some rest.

    Reply
  5. Hackathons are meant to be fun, not necessarily productive nor are they meant to be a place where you can build the next great thing. I attend hackathons to have fun building stuff with my friends, not to mention at getting a shot at some sweet prizes. Some nights you go and party all nights with your friends, others you stay in and hack it out. It’s all for the fun guys.

    Reply
    1. Absolutely. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to. They’re bad for doing something productive, especially stuff that needs a lot of complicated thinking. It surely be awesome for just hanging out and having fun.

      Reply
  6. It appears that hackathons have become more and more popular in past few years. I agree that these events provide an opportunity for corporations to obtain great ideas at a slight health cost of the participants. However, to say that these events are bad because they cause those who partake to loose sleep and eat bad food would then suggest that the majority of my college experience was bad… and yet it has helped me get to where I am today. Interesting point, but taken too much to the extreme. I think the benifit of a social gathering and a night of lost sleep or bad food doesn’t mean that hackathons are bad… I would just suggest its participants don’t make these lifestyle choices.

    Reply
  7. I’ve been to what I would call hackathons, and they didn’t last for 24 hours. Those are called ‘night gibb’ or ‘LAN party’ in Sweden and is actually related to gaming! Then again we also host the world’s largest LAN party.

    A hackathon to me is a day + an evening, i.e. longer than a work day but purely focused on hacking. It can be a social thing and doesn’t have to mean sitting down at all! I was at the Royal Institute of Technology here in Sweden on a hackathon hosted by a company a while ago, and I just worked on something that I thought would be fun.

    Reply
  8. I agree. The purported “Hacker Culture” of staying up at night sounds cool, and even feels cool for some time. But over the long term, there it makes things miserable. Wrecks your health, wrecks your sleep cycles, wrecks your sleep as well! (as I’ve realized, there are three times more disturbances in morning, so there goes your unbroken sleep), and also, it wrecks your social life (even talking to friends is hard).

    I read another article on Svbtle, where a guy (i’m forgetting his name), advised on sleeping early and waking early. Saves a lot of time. (article was called: 26 hour day, or something like that)

    Reply
  9. While I agree that sleep deprivation isn’t good for you (how could I do otherwise), and I agree with you that a good diet is essential for the run long, I do believe that Hackathons are about something else. In my opinion Hackathons are not about creating the most elegant code you have ever written but as you said to `get cracking’. In addition it is an opportunity to meet your peers and exchange ideas, which usually goes well, or feels to go well, during the consumption of some alcoholic beverages.

    So in short, I agree that some developers could benefit from a healthier lifestyle, but I don’t think Hackathons in their current format are *bad* per se.

    Reply
  10. You cannot expect anyone to split up the hackathon into 2 days for fear of people getting and unfair advantage.

    It doesn’t matter that you don’t see the devs or hold them at your location, just knowing that they have a project going on will make them go home, drink a ton of coffee/booze/amphetamines and get cracking into the morning and the next day.

    I think this solution will only make problems worse in the long run, as the coding / staying up late periods will be longer.

    Reply
  11. I think perhaps the most important point you make, or the point which at least applies the most to me personally, is about distraction and lack of focus. Getting into a state where you’re completely focused on coding is hard, and disturbances are poisonous.

    There are plenty of other opportunities for junk food and drinks if you’re a developer (meetups, conferences), so do you really want to risk writing sub-optimal code at a hackathon where the goal is to get stuff done?

    Reply
  12. I gotta say, I think your argument is bullshit. If someone went to hackathons every single weekend, then surely they’d been in danger of having an unhealthy lifestyle. But I wouldn’t say hackathons promote that. Going to one every once in a while to do a sprint, make some new friends, see what’s new and happening among some awesome hackers, is an awesome idea. When I’m not going to hackathons, I do martial arts, run, hike, and lead a normal, might I say extremely healthy, life.

    It’s just like going out clubbing and dancing your heart out, having incredibly good conversation with friends that goes until 3 in the morning, waking up at 3 am to climb a mountain, etc. It’s a way to accomplish great things or have a lot of fun in a short amount of time. Just make sure it’s not every day or every weekend, and you’ll have both a very healthy life and many awesome weekends.

    Reply
    1. Point taken. But it comes back to the same thing. Hackathons are great for hanging out and meeting people. It’s like gathering of the geek tribe. And I totally see the value in that. To do something productive and maybe code up a new project, not so much.

      Reply
  13. It seems to be something pervasive in the US culture, the more you sacrifice (or pretend to sacrifice) for your job/hobby, the better person you seems to be.

    Reply
  14. When I arange the OuluOpenHacks, we have sleep times. And there is no drinking. We also have the Wii U out for breaks, and try to step out for a meal together during the event.

    It’s fun!

    Reply
  15. Having attended half a dozen hackathons in the past year, not one followed your “standard recipe for a Hackathon.” Indeed, only point 1 matches with my reality.

    Which is why when you got to the “Solutions” section, I couldn’t help but have a chuckle. That’s the standard, at least insofar as I’ve attended. Sure, I’ve seen the ones you’ve mentioned promoted, but I do not attend those, as I find them silly.

    tl;dr: Bad hackathons are bad for you. Do not attend them.

    Reply
  16. Great read Chinpen. I think we can do hacks in a better way. Currently, we hack once a month all day on a Friday. Everyone has the option to leave at five like normal, but you’d be surprised how few people do. Nothing like sleep deprivation though. I also find it an invaluable innovation tool, as it gets developers out of the day to day “grind” so to speak.

    Reply
  17. This sort of thing was characteristic of MacHack from 1986 to 2003. Except that it lasted 72 hours – none of this wimpy 24-hour thing! The catchphrase was “sleep is for the weak and sickly”.
    The organizers made a point of serving pizza and junk food – the more fluorescent, the better. When I questioned one (much younger) attendee about the contents of his plate, he said “science will take care of me!”. Hah.

    Reply
  18. Yes, agree with this, hackathons are simply mediatised bits of stupidity for new-media poseurs [of which we have so many in east London, anyone else want a few?]. A significant problem with probably need days/weeks/months to arrive at a reasonable answer. They suit suits though, free labour, this is what I overheard at a digital media conference in Greenwich:

    stick them in a room for 48 hours, feed them pizza and fizzy drinks, and then make a business out of it…

    Reply
  19. I’ve only been to a couple of hackathons. The first was one day – i.e. about 9 hours – so no sleep deprivation. The second was two-day, and several people did stay the whole night, but our team all went home to sleep and still won one of the categories.

    The food, it is true, was terrible junk. But if you only go to, say, three of four hackathons a year is that really so bad for you? As with all things, moderation.

    Encourage people to go home and sleep? yes. Have better (i.e. healthier) food? yes. But don’t worry about these too much, as long as the participants aren’t doing a hackathon every single weekend.

    Hackathons are a good thing; networking, playing with new tech, some of them are even for worthwhile causes (e.g. RHoK) – make them better, don’t write them off!

    Reply
  20. You should get out to more hackathons. While some have the characteristics, I”m older and never stay out all night, and I’ve been to some that were amaziningly catered with healthy food. And they didn’t have a focus of startup or the next big thing. I don’t think this doesn’t null your argument, but it doesn’t apply to all events. I recommend trying a different brand of hackathon.

    Reply
  21. Are they universally bad or is it more so how they are organized and led…? Getting 50 talented and dedicated people in the same room can be a challenge in of itself; building synergy amongst them in a short time span even more so.

    I’ve never partaken personally, but my organization has been involved heavily in sponsorship of various hackathons. From what I’ve gathered they are most successful when related to a social cause, and organized in a fashion that promotes multiple ideas, smaller team collaboration and early results. They tend to be more rigidly designed for over a weekend early morning/day, eg 9-5. So not quite the same as spending all night pounding beers and pizza… but of course depends on what type of hackers you need.

    Reply
  22. I think you totally missed the boat on a hackathon’s hugest benefits, the opportunity for exploration of new techniques, technologies, languages, and frameworks, and the learning that goes along with it. Eradicating hackathons would be a huge disservice to the world, as I’ve never seen a better vehicle for helping people dive into the world of Computer Science.

    Granted, it’s not a sustainable method that you can do every weekend and definitely has a short-term negative impact on health, but the occasional hackathon, I’ve found to be hugely beneficial to soooooo many people.

    Reply
  23. In NYC they do these yearly Food + Tech Connect hackathons which go on during the day and feature tasty and healthy food options. I loved them and hope to start something like that in Chicago. Maybe I’m old, but neglecting basic biological needs makes me grumpy.

    Reply
  24. We endorse a different format at HasGeek for precisely the reasons you’ve outlined:

    1. Our hacknights are ~16 hours long, starting 2 PM and going on for as long as the participant wants to go on. We avoid ending ceremonies (prize giveaways, etc) that force participants to stay until an endpoint.

    2. We don’t order junk food. We get simple, healthy food from neighbouring delivery places — the same sort of food we’d eat on any other day.

    3. We get mattresses, plenty of them. There’s always one for you to nap on when you need to.

    4. Our preferred venue (a house converted into an office) has many rooms, so 4-5 people can work together in isolation. There’s no thumping background music and no chatter from people around the venue. All rooms have doors that can be closed.

    5. There’s a garden attached and a park nearby to take walks in. Many participants do that to discuss their ideas.

    6. The thrust of the event isn’t to code to a demo-ready state and compete for a prize, but rather to simply try something new in an environment of peers.

    Finally, in Bangalore, rush hour traffic can take an hour+ for just 10km of commute, so for many participants the knowledge that they can stay until rush hour is over, or that they can just crash overnight, means that they save 2+ hours, the stress of commuting, and the stress of planning their day so they can commute outside of rush hour.

    Given these factors, I’d say we actually have a pretty healthy hackathon format.

    Reply
  25. “Contrary to popular belief, caffeine does not act as a diuretic when consumed in moderation (less than five cups a day or 500 to 600 milligrams), and does not lead to dehydration or to a water-electrolyte imbalance; current evidence suggests that caffeinated beverages contribute to the body’s daily fluid requirements no differently from pure water.”

    —Wikipedia
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_effects_of_coffee#Laxative.C2.A0.2F_diuretic

    The article cites:

    [1] Really? The Claim: Caffeine Causes Dehydration. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/health/nutrition/04real.html?_r=1

    [2] Armstrong LE, Casa DJ, Maresh CM, Ganio MS (2007). “Caffeine, fluid-electrolyte balance, temperature regulation, and exercise-heat tolerance”. Exerc. Sport Sci. Rev. 35 (3): 135–140. doi:10.1097/jes.0b013e3180a02cc1. PMID 17620932. (Review article, free full text available at Medscape with registration.) http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/559762

    [3] Armstrong LE, Pumerantz AC, Roti MW, Judelson DA, Watson G, Dias JC, Sokmen B, Casa DJ, Maresh CM, Lieberman H, Kellogg M. (2005). “Fluid, electrolyte, and renal indices of hydration during 11 days of controlled caffeine consumption”. Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 15 (3): 252–265. PMID 16131696. (Placebo controlled randomized clinical trial.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16131696

    [4] Grandjean AC, Reimers KJ, Bannick KE, Haven MC (October 2000). “The effect of caffeinated, non-caffeinated, caloric and non-caloric beverages on hydration”. J. Am. Coll. Nutr. 19 (5): 591–600. PMID 11022872. http://www.jacn.org/cgi/content/full/19/5/591

    Reply
    1. Interesting. I should read up more on this. But I do notice myself getting significantly dehydrated when I’m imbibing too much coffee. Maybe I’m still sensitive to it.

      Reply
  26. 1) Y Combinator doesn’t promote or prefer an archetype of unhealthy programmers. They even give equal weight to exercise in “write code, talk to users, exercise”.

    2) People do these things because they find them fun, not because they think they’re expected to. At one point we tried to split up our hackathons into two days, and people got very upset.

    Reply
    1. OK. I stand corrected about the YC.

      I agree it’s fun. But most hackathons have left me feeling I could have better spilt my time between focusing on having fun (hanging out with the gang) vs productively coding.

      Reply
  27. I always viewed hackathons as fun events, that are cool to do every once in a while. I’ve never viewed them as a promotion of a negative lifestyle. They have never mirrored my normal lifestyle from the food, drinks, sleep deprivation, etc.

    I look at it this way, every once in a while I drink starting at like noon and stay up till like 3am. But that is in no way how I live my normal life. I do it because its fun to do every once in a while.

    Reply
  28. In the demoscene we do ha a word for creative work under the conditions described above. We call it “party coding”. It often takes a couple of years to realize party coding gives bad code. It is not a hackathon, but the attitude is the same.

    Reply
  29. I agree with the points you make but hackathons are usually a once in awhile thing. Now if they were all the time then things like the poor health etc would be more of an issue. No one should be living their life like one huge hackathon. I say most of what you say is bad is perfectly ok if done in moderation.

    Believe me, I am all for a healthy programming lifestyle and preach it regularly. But I too occasionally have the late nighter with junk food. :)

    Reply
    1. Point taken. I am also guilty of having my fair share of sleepless days and junk food. But like someone said on the HN thread, it’s the culture which needs to be affected to consider these things as well.

      Reply
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  32. A small part of me dies every time a hackathon or tech meetup has pizza. After dong a series of hackathons in quick succession I don’t know if I can ever really look at a pizza again, certainly not when tired and stressed….

    Reply
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