Getting to grips with hackathons

I HAVE always wondered about hackathons, and the role they play in the startup ecosystem.

In recent years the number of hackathons, gatherings where programmers and designers collaboratively code in a short period of time, have increased dramatically in Malaysia.

From their grassroots developer-centric beginnings, today hackathons are sponsored by all manner of corporate and government entities, for purposes ranging from awareness to exercises in potential product acquisitions, now litter the landscape.

Truth is, the same thought pops up in my head whenever a new one gets announced: Hack, and then what?

One only needs to look at the case of Owe$ome, a debt-collection and bill-splitting app which won the Malaysian leg of AngelHack last June, to much fanfare and publicity.

A trip for two to Silicon Valley was won, followed by a subsequent fundraising campaign to get sponsors for the rest of the six-men team, from digital design agency VLT Labs, to go as well.

In the months since then not a peep has been heard about it, despite proclamations of commitment to bringing the app to market after its hackathon victory.

A group of developers bemoan the lost allure of the country’s early events that were typically hosted by technology giants offering the programming community a chance to play around and go crazy with new tools.

“Then the business guys started jumping in and things just started getting messy. Now you can have a team that wins with a presentation over ones that have hacked together prototypes in 48 hours, which may not always be a smooth demonstration,” said one developer with a wry smile.

Dhakshinamoorthy “Dash” Balakrishnan, founder of, noted that hackathons encourage creation under constraints and also tests ideas.

“Of course they (hackathons) have merit, Twitter was created in one!” he said.

“I believe young people need to be taught two key skills: One, to see problems as opportunities, and two, to create under constraints. Of course this is to learn the process until they find a problem that won’t let them go. This is the venture they will then work on,” he added. Dash also points out that hackathons are also good places to find a team member or cofounder, a view shared by Eric Tan, chief technology officer at hardware startup Maketronics PLT.

Tan, who has participated in four hackathons and won the Hackademy KL challenge this year, said he finds such events useful, as there is a clear goal to chase within a limited time.

“I do think hackathons are a place for new startups because we all have our own ideas and where else can one find like-minded people who appreciate new ideas and a new way of doing things?” he added.

Tan admits being awarded trips to Silicon Valley, the grand prize at many hackathons, was a great bonus adding that winners can also attract other participants to work on their project.

Patrick Yong, a tech entrepreneur and “Microsoft Most Valuable Professional” award winner also believes hackathons hold value, having organised a couple.

“I think it is more than just fun and each hackathon has its own agenda. The audience is a mix of entrepreneurs, students and some tech gods. What I have seen so far, it is a good networking venue for whatever agenda you have.

“I notice however, that the depth or quality of the work we see at local hackathons varies. We’ve see some very good products, to mostly just university-type projects that have no value. Nevertheless it gives newbies an experience.

“So it’s not the question of too many hackathons — in Malaysia we don’t see too many new faces. If over a year, you went to four or five, you may have met most of the attendees,” he added.

Wu Han Ngeow, chief designer at Mindvalley believes the key to what makes a good hackathon is facilitation.

“I think they’re okay if facilitated well. Sometimes it’s good to just lock a bunch of people together to just do one, but it’s important that everyone generally like each other to begin with,” he said.

Ngeow stressed that the role of facilitation should not be underestimated.

“What’s happening now is that the old people just go and hangout with their buddies and the youngsters are too intimidated to break into those cliques. Hence facilitation is important.

“I think what hackathons create is more mentor/mentee relationships and if it leads to startups it’s just a bonus,” he added. Dash concurs, adding “You can’t expect to look for a winning venture here all the time.”

Yong noted that despite the country having embraced the idea of hackathons, if there is one thing still missing — the Open Government Hackathon.

“This is getting popular in the US and Europe. The government encourages people to create something that is of common good and at the same time encourages the startup ecosystem in the country,” he added.

Getting our coders together to solve national problems instead of creating new apps for telcos? Now that would certainly be something I’d like to see more of.

Opinion , Gabberish column