Theorizing the Web abstract

Discourse on hackathons tends to emphasize projects and project creators rather than the events as a social practice within existing communities. Hackathons have a history as a community building method for education and creation. More recently, institutions have used hackathons to invite conversation and design with groups affected by those institutions. This step towards broader participation is obfuscated by stories that focus on the creation of products and the lucky geniuses whose work is appropriated by institutions. Critiques of hackathons often accept the same assumptions, focusing on high profile events, critiquing the small number of sustained projects, and questioning hackathons as a form of entrepreneurial free labor.

We argue that hackathons are a community practice which is poorly expressed by this focus on project outcomes. Based on our historical research and interviews with hackathon organizers, we show evidence for ongoing contributions to community objectives as a core value to many events. Hackathons have been a community practice for decades in open source groups, hackerspaces, and companies. People participate to learn, signal their belonging to the group, and at times to make something new. Many communities hold regular hackathons as one component of their larger initiatives.

As hackathons have become more popular, governments and companies without a history of engaging with people outside their organization have been using them to listen to critiques and to support people and ideas that they formerly lacked the capacity to hear. Hackathons are offering a new channel through which marginalized groups can remix, critique, and relate directly to people within those institutions. However, project-oriented narratives about hackathons motivate institutions towards easy, shallow, visible innovation from people who already know the institution. The visible project and its creators, rather than communities or process, are the goal of these hackathons, which reinforce the status quo. Repeatedly failing to meet expectations can inoculate institutions and participants alike from further engagement. Project oriented narratives also limit hackathon’s ability to share community values with new groups, encouraging and rewarding individualism rather than the more historically-common practices towards education and expanding sustainable projects.

In this talk, we illustrate what’s missed by project-oriented narratives via interviews with hackathon organizers and a series of case studies. We will also offer examples of alternative discourse that highlights community practices, learning outcomes, and critical discourse that occurs within hackathons.

How do I Create a Challenge Brief?

Originally created by the amazing Lindsay Oliver over on the Geeks Without Bounds blog, and reposted with permission here.

Why create a challenge brief?

Useful challenge briefs are the key to producing robust solutions for a hackathons. They do this by limiting, not expanding, the parameters of solutions to challenges. It’s easy for participants to overextend themselves on solutions that try to address too many components of a problem at once. By creating challenge briefs that break the problem up into parsable, bite-sized chunks that can be tackled in the time span of an event, participants are able to create more viable results when they focus on one component or feature.

Remember that hackathon challenges aren’t necessarily software development challenges. Most Geeks Without Bounds and Random Hacks of Kindness affiliated hackathons allow the opportunity to work on challenges around software, hardware, and open data. Many are also open to citizen science projects, educational resource creation, and the development of other commons resources. Be sure to explain in your brief what sorts of resources you would like to see in response to your challenge.

What are the key pieces of effective challenge briefs?

  • Background
  • Challenge Statement
  • Scenarios (optional)
  • Components
  • Resources


Provide your participants with contextualizing information on the problem, the requesting organization, etc. This will help lay the groundwork for them to determine what solutions might be valuable in this use case, and how those solutions might need to be tweaked for the benefit of the end user.


Kiva is a microfinancing platform with the goal of bringing an end to poverty through giving. They focus on individual empowerment to create opportunities, ensuring that marginalized populations are the ones in charge of their own development, prosperity, and independence.

Challenge Statement

This is the heart of your brief. The challenge statement boils down the problem(s) that are being presented to participants. Be sure to state the need and explain why solving this issue is necessary. Indicate how a solution to this challenge would impact the stakeholders, and provide any needed caveats for special cases of use.


Kiva needs a better way to understand its own donor data and extract meaningful/actionable information from it, provide avenues for external partners and wealth managers to interpret and share impacts of this data, and use this information to further drive engagement of donors both individual and donor-advised. Any tool created for this challenge will need to take into consideration the internal and external potential uses for this tool, and implement reasonable flexibility to address these end users.

Scenarios (optional)

This is an optional component for your challenge brief that is dependent upon any special cases of use that the solution will be addressing. For the example provided below, the end user of this tool may be outside of the organizational structure that created it. This information helps participants craft solutions that provide flexibility for implementation of the tool.


Many of Kiva’s donors come from a pool of donor-advised funds via institutions like Morgan Stanley. These wealth managers provide reports to their managed investors on how their money is being used, what the return rate of those investments are, and what the impact of those investments are for the recipients. Wealth managers need the ability to track these funds at a variety of levels (geographic area, type of loan, amount, theme, etc) and provide this information to their investors. This will enable donors to provide feedback, see the actual positive human outcomes generated by their investments, and direct their wealth managers toward targeted groups in need.


This is where you break up the challenge into parsable chunks for teams to choose from. Stress to your teams that this is not a checklist of items to complete, but a starting place for ideas. Only one portion of the possible solutions should be addressed by individual teams, NOT the entire list.


1. Refined Loan Information Processing
-Accessing information on donated/invested funds more easily
-Calibrated for intaking both individual donors and larger firms
-Both for external firms and internal Kiva usage
2. Funds Tracking
-Tracking of funds both individual and donor-advised to provide a holistic overview of where, how, and why funds are spent
-The ability to import funds data from sources outside of Kiva
3. Impact Visualization
-A flexible, adaptable, and editable visualizations generator
-Framed for use both internal and external


Give your participants shiny new toys to play with. Platforms, APIs, datasets (with PII, personally identifiable information, SCRUBBED), media, use case studies, etc, should be made available to teams. Don’t overdo it, though, as too much information may bog the teams down and prevent out of the box problem-solving.



  • Developer Site, Kiva API, and Sample Data
  • Datasets: Incorporated into provisioned hackathon NetSuite accounts
  • Kiva Media and Image Gallery


Good luck, and happy hacking!

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Should I Offer a Prize at My Hackathon?

Consider: what do you want the prize to do for the event, and for the attendees, and for your cause?
Your humble author usually steers clear of cash and large prizes because of the people it brings around, and how they influence the crowd. Do you want to prioritize large attendance / an opportunity for undergrads to be exposed to this topic? Or do you want to prioritize sharing stories and collaborating on potential solutions with no strings attached? Any of these priorities (or others) are totally fine, but decide what you’re going for, and pick how to handle prizes based on that.

Building Capacity

At things like StartUp Weekend, prizes help teams move their project forward – time with a lawyer, some startup cash, access to expensive dev tools, etc. At GWOB events, we usually give prizes which are coding books, comics, and hardware kits; all to get people thinking in new spaces. Another set of prizes might be qualifying to work towards a bounty of DELIVERING a working prototype (or some other milestone) by X months after the hackathon. Or just use prize money towards that, and use the hackathon as a time to onboard people to the ideas. (I think I would even wait to tell people about the bounty until the hackathon itself).

Attracting Attendees

Prizes sure can be great for attracting attendees. For people with many options in front of them for how to spend their time, prizes can incentivize attendance. This can also mean attendees might view the prize as compensation for their time – a strange mental space to be in, especially if not a winner. Prizes can also incentivize people to focus and to push themselves out of friendly (or unfriendly) competitiveness.

Other Considerations

Smallish prizes as indications of appreciation are awesome. Definitely need to be able to be divvied up across a team (no ONE LAPTOP PRIZE – how can 4 people deal with that?). Too big/prestigious, and people don’t collaborate or share what they’re up to (being protective of people “stealing” their good ideas).

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Hackathon Consent Form

Purpose and general description of the study

Study on the history, use, and troubles of the hackathon, or codefest, model of engagement. The goal is to end up with a clearer understanding of the tension between the formal sector taking on the idea of “hackathon” while actively combatting the context of “hacking.” More appropriate methodologies for organizers, facilitators, and participants would be published and workshopped back into the community of hackathons and the people who make them happen.


This study is conducted by Willow Brugh, a research affiliate at Center for Civic Media at MIT’s Media Lab, with Ethan Zuckerman as Principal Investigator. You, along with 3-10 other individuals, are requested to participate in the study due to your connection and history with the groups which exemplify the topic. These groups were chosen based on a wide ranging view of hackathons and engagement roles.

The research is anticipated to include a one-hour interview with participants and followup questions via email. Summaries will be sent to participants for feedback and approval before being posted to a public website. Research is currently slated to end in December 2013.



Your participation in this research is completely voluntary.  You can withdraw from the study at any time without penalty or loss of the benefits to which you are otherwise entitled. You do not have to answer any questions that you do not want to answer.

Data Collection

Data will be collected via interviews via Jitsi, G+, Skype, Phone, Jabber, or some other conversational platform of the interviewee’s choice, or possible in-person interaction. Dependent upon the consent of the interviewee, data will be logged mentally, textually, and/or audibly. All data will be released to the interviewee within 2 weeks, and later to the public if single-instance consent is expressed after review.


During the interviews, expression of beliefs around hackathons, their purpose, and methodologies will be examined. Questions will revolve around history, best practices, success stories, and future expectations.


Due to the co-creative nature of this research, participants will determine if they would like to be identified or not. Each node of analysis of interviews will be released to the interviewee for approval and clarification, and at that time the interviewee will be asked if they would like the node to be anonymized or credited. If any subset of interviewees desires anonymity, Willow Brugh will consult with the participants to determine if all groups must be anonymized to protect the indicating party, or if a mix-and-match is possible.



Confidentiality in this study is determined by the participants. After agreeing to take part in the study, each interviewee will indicate what level of confidentiality they prefer:

  1. Anonymity to the best of the researcher’s ability.
  2. Association with group, but individual anonymity.
  3. Identified by name and group affiliation.

Based upon how all interviewees respond, Willow Brugh will work with the participants to determine if mix-and-match is plausible, or if all respondants must be identified or anonymous. If in question, anonymity will be defaulted to. Any quotes or exact attributions will rely upon a per-instance specific consent.


All data will be retained on a hard drive encrypted via TrueCrypt ( and stored with Willow Brugh and an encrypted backup drive stored in a locked cabinet at MIT’s Media Lab. All interviews and email exchanges will take place via OTR, PGP mail,  Jitsi, or Red Phone. Any documentation will be offered to the interviewee and transmitted via encrypted channels (as listed above), but it is their perogative to store in a secure fashion if desired. Assistance in setting up encryption methods is provided upon request.

If anonymity is desired, any audio will be destroyed after analysis of the interview is responded to and approved by the interviewee. The name of the interviewee will at no point be stored in plaintext, and will be erased from stored data after encoding occurs.

If explicit consent is given on a per-instance basis, audio and transcript (when available) will be published to the web in an open format.


Risks, Costs, and Benefits

Risks of Participating in the Research

There are no known risks for participating in this research, other than the violation of confidentiality if confidentiality is desired. I have indicated above/below the steps I am taking to preserve your confidentiality.

Benefits to the Subject or Others, or Body of Knowledge

In understanding and making explicit the benefits and difficulties of the hackathon space, these communities can become more self-aware and thereby more effective in achieving their goals.


No compensation is provided to participants.


Questions about the research and rights of research participants

If you have any questions about this study at any time, please feel free to contact either me, Willow Brugh, at 812.219.4056 or, or Ethan Zuckerman, director of Center for Civic Media at We will do everything possible to prevent or reduce your discomfort and risk to you, but it is not possible to predict everything that might occur.  If you experience unexpected discomfort or think something unusual or problematic is occurring, please contact any of the people listed above.

Signature Block

By filling in your name, you indicate your desire to participate in this study.

Please indicate your preferences for overall anonymity (you can change this at any point for future publication, but existing research updates will either have been credited directly to you or stripped of all information). Each node will pass through you for feedback and approval before being published.

  1. Anonymity to the best of the researcher’s ability.
  2. Association with group, but individual anonymity.
  3. Identified by name and group affiliation.

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Theorizing the Web Talk

Nate and Willow’s talk at Theorizing the Web 2014 on Hackathons are More than Hacks starts at 50:12

  1. Set up the mismatch between media and practice (3 mins max
    1. Introduce ourselves
      1. Willow
      2. Nathan
    2. N: If you’ve read about hackathons in the press, you’ve probably seen
      1. clever young hackers winning prizes for making tech
      2. rather than a community of all ages learning together
    3. W: show a quote by an organiser
    4. W: and a quote from a participant
    5. N: In this presentation, we share some early results from research on hackathons. We’re seeing a mismatch between media narratives and the stories participants themselves tell, a mismatch that is colouring critiques of hackathons.
    6. (describe our methods and context) (45 seconds) (brief)
      1. w: what is a hackathon, based on our experience and our interviews
      2. w: we interviewed around 15 participants, organizers, and facilitators.
      3. n: we analysed around 640 articles and blog posts about hackathons
      4. w: we’re involved
  2. W: In my interviews: Hackathons at the intersection of community building and engagement with institutions (who are the players, and what are their goals) (2 min)
    1. What hackathons we’ve looked and been involved in
      1. (slide) with a big list of logos and what years are covered with us and the people we’ve talked to
      2. (zoom) Communities (slide with lots of examples) (open source, disaster response, entreprenuers)
      3. (zoom) Organisations (slide with lots of examples) (businesses, governments, non profits)
    2. Who attends (front end, back end, subject matter experts, students) or just (do this for THEIR LIVING, professionals who want to volunteer their tech skills on a weekend, folk who want to learn more about a subject, folk who are passionate about a subject but don’t know how to engage)
  3. W: What actually happens at and after hackathons (3 mins) include a bunch of quotes
    1. People learn about new disciplines and challenges
    2. People find a way their skills can change the environment they’re in
    3. People find others with shared interests
    4. What happens with projects & initiatives
  4. N: How hackathons get portrayed (2 mins)
    1. Slide of what media we analyzed, including list of sources, MediaCloud mention, and histograms for Hackathon and Civic Hacking (640 articles)
    2. Simple revolutionary solutions
    3. Civic Hacking (80 articles & blog posts)
      1. equal measure PR
      2. project documentation
      3. critiques of the idea
    4. Superstars & Startups
    5. last point: mismatch between media narratives and interview results
  5. Major critiques of hackathons – coming from theorists, critics, and funders
    1. slide that points to hackathon critique articles & minisites (don’t try to respond)
      1. example: MELISSA GREGG & CARL DISALVO “The Trouble with White Hats” (New Enquiry) (
      2. example: National Day of Hacking Assumptions & Entitlement ( voices from people in those communities. Disconnect causing animosity.
      3. Morozov “Making It” New Yorker:
      4. David Sasaki (Omidyar, now Gates Foundation): On Hackathons & Solutionism
    2. List Critiques (willow)
      1. Produces incomplete & short-lived projects (prototyping) – addressed when about the community rather than about the media.
      2. Free labor for companies & gov’t
      3. Doesn’t create fundamental change
      4. Props up existing structures, making them more efficient
      5. Inauthentic citizenship as alternative to meaningful change
      6. Only addresses technically actionable solutions
      7. It’s impossible for tech to support meaningful structural change
      8. False Empowerment: Solutionism in a weekend
      9. Distraction: People feel good about shiny ideas that never have impact
      10. Emphasizes superstars rather than communities
      11. Entrenches exclusion by favoring people with technical skills
    3. Nathan: What ties these critiques together is an emphasis on media portrayals and less a focus on actual community practices we’re seeing
      1. Media doesn’t emphasize learning
      2. Media doesn’t emphasize community building
      3. Media supports an overly simplistic solutionist narrative
      4. Media prefers a one hero story about shallow revolution
      5. Media attention focused around the hackathon event, with limited follow-up: if projects proceed beyond prototype, we don’t hear about on going effort
      6. All of these things can obscure what really happens
  6. W: Based on what we’ve found: Responsibility for hackathons, media, and researchers, for a method that’s still growing and evolving (3 minutes)
    1. W: Impart a sense of what these become as what we make of them. By their very nature, they are malleable. People with skin in the game need to be engaged with responsibly.
    2. W: Solid as a working method – especially cross-culturally (closing technological gaps as well as socioeconomic / access gaps)
    3. W: So you’re organizing a hackathon – think about how you’re portraying it to all parties, and make sure to amplify communities and practices, not just projects
    4. M: So you’re reporting on a hackathon – reporting on projects is lazy – look deeper into the community practices, learning, and engagement with institutions
    5. M: So you’re researching hacker culture – find a stance that acknowledges and respects the voices, experiences, and work of the communities whose outcomes and potential will be directly affected by the arguments you make from a position of power and privilege. Go beyond critique and simple media criticism for a deeper engagement with communities and practices
    6. W: Use & contribute to

About This Site / Contributions

This site was created out of frustration and love by Willow Brugh and J. Nathan Matias, with hefty contributions from a staggering number of brilliant people. Pages and interviews continue to go live through the end of 2014, when the site should be considered static. Willow and Nathan are both affiliated with Center for Civic Media at MIT’s Media Lab and Harvard Law’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society in vague to concrete ways.

Want to Contribute?

Awesome! We’d love to hear from you.

You can set up an interview with Willow via, or email us your ideas to jnmatias and bl00 at media dot mit dot edu.

What Do Participants Need to Know for Their First Hackathon?

includes nominal cursing

How Do I Organize a Hackathon?

We don’t need to tell you this – it’s thoroughly and beautifully documented at Why reinvent the wheel? Go check out this crowd-sourced overview.

Here are some extra factors you might consider for framing:

Kav of Startup Weekend

Willow Brugh: Tell me, who are you?

Kav: Kav Latiolais

Willow: What are you into? What sorts of things do you do?

Kav: S lot of stuff. I do a lot of consulting around [inaudible 00:20] start up, customer development, design competing, a little bit of what they call liberating structure, which is a really cool thing, you might want to talk to the folks who created that at some point. That would probably be good. I’ve facilitated a lot of Start-up Weekends.

Willow: How did you get into facilitating Start-up Weekends?

Kav: It was interesting case. I had a buddy who was going to go to the one in Portland and I was at Microsoft and he’s, “You should come, it’ll be fun.” I agreed to go with him and we ended up taking the train down with the CEO, at the time, who was the facilitator for our event. This was back when they were first getting things off the ground.

I went to an event in Portland and I had a really amazing experience. I had a team of six or seven people. They just did a really amazing amount of work in two days. There were definitely arguments about stuff, but we were, in general, pretty well organized.

It felt like, a little bit like night and day compared to my day job where just planning to get the amount of work done, that we had gotten done over the weekend would have taken at least three days.

I was really excited about that. Mark, who was the facilitator, also the CEO, said, “Dude, I really liked how you ran your team, you did a really great job. Can you coach the next event and help some of these teams with their project management stuff?” I started coaching at different events.

I coached the one in Seattle, the weekend after the one I did in Portland. Probably, two months later, I coached another one and then I think I coached one more. Then, they asked me to go start facilitating, or to organize one and then start facilitating because they want you to organize one first.

I organized one at Microsoft in Redmond. Next I actually ended up flying out as the backup facilitator. It was really like a technical facilitator, that event I did in Tel Aviv, a joint Israeli Palestinian event. They had a facilitator already, but the budget had money to bring out a technical expert, so I came out then.

I ended up doing a lot of the facilitation there. The guy who was their facilitator was a great guy. He just didn’t have the relationship with a lot of the Palestinian folks I did, because I spent a few days in Ramallah, while working on them on some stuff.

•    Hackathons
Willow: Cool. Tell me what you think about hack-a-tons.

Kav: It’s an interesting model, and it’s more talking about start-up weekend specifically, and its relationship to hack-a-thons. I grew up in [inaudible 03:24] culture as most developers my age did, where a lot of people got into coding was to scratch their own itch. I got into programming, because I was really frustrated with a video game, I was playing and I wanted to make it easier, which is not at all how programming works but I was 12-years-old then.

We grew up writing apps, to entertain ourselves, and to make our lives easier. The hack-a-ton model has really grown out of that, the idea of I want to build a utility for this or I want to build a framework that does that, because it’s a problem I keep running into and I don’t think anyone has really solved this problem.

It used to be that hack-a-tons were very much like get some pizza, get a bunch of people together and we’re just going to geek out on scratching our own itch. That was fun. I did maybe one, maybe two of those. Sometimes they’re around a particular technology, so it was come to this hack-a-ton on this new technology. It’s sort of an experience, like you take a course on doing that thing.

Interestingly, I never really got into that. I think, part of it is because the crowd that gets really into that, is into solving technical problems for their own sake. Then, I think the other interesting historical world is the business plan competition. The business plan competition, being the place where as someone who has got an idea for business, you sit around for a month or whatever and write up your business plan.

It’s this 1,500 page monstrosity full of made-up shit, and then in the business plan competition, you go up in front of an audience, pitch all this made up stuff that you’ve got and then everyone decides who’s idea seems like it’s most realistic, or most likely to make money, or whatever and they give you a reward. A lot of Start up Weekend is about bringing those two things together, to get rid of the lame elements of both.

Let’s build a product that’s focused on an actual business, and let’s learn about what that business might actually look like, and then from the business side let’s make sure we’re actually validating real business concepts, instead of making shit up. I think, as start-up weekend and similar events have matured, they focus more and more on really weeding out the stuff that doesn’t make any sense.

I think I’ve seen that with a lot of other stuff around, civic hack-a-tons will follow a very similar model, where they’re very much focused on the end-user or end customer, rather than on a programmer scratching their itch. I think, an interesting thing is in the field in general, of software in particular. Although I think technology generally could be stated this way, we’ve reached a point where scratching your own itch is no longer sufficient to build a business.

I think, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, sure. MS-DOS was great, because it helped Bill Gates do this thing, and then he sold it, because everyone else wanted to do that thing too. Any solution to a problem was an awesome solution, whereas know there are already a million solutions out there, so you’ve got to be building something pretty awesome.

Willow: Yeah, I haven’t thought of it that way.

Kav: And with that, you have to actually look at the human beings you’re building for, and I think that is a lot of what was being changed in the world of hack-a-thons, in the last few years.

What do you think the purpose of a hack-a-thon is?
Kav: The purpose of the traditional hack-a-thon, is like sword sharpening and skill practicing. It’s really all about doing your katas, so to speak. Getting better at the stuff you do, or learning something new, or solving a problem that has been on your list forever, and you just haven’t gotten around to it.

It’s very easy, as a developer, to get an itch for something where you’re like, “I have this idea. I want to work on it.” But without people around you who are also working it’s hard to motivate yourself.

I think more and more, we’re seeing really interesting stuff, where these hack-a-thons are turning into business generators of one kind or another. I don’t think probably, five years ago, people were asking the question when they left start-up weekend or a hack-a-thon like event.

I don’t think they were asking the question “How can I make every day of my life look like this?” Whereas I think more and more people are asking that.

More and more young people are saying, “I want to work on something that’s fulfilling. I want to work on something that’s inspiring. I want to work on the kind of thing that I would volunteer my weekend to work on. Not because I intend to volunteer all my weekends to work on that, but because I want to be that happy about it.” I think that’s really one of the most important things that has changed.

I don’t think a lot of actual companies come out of start-up weekend and I don’t think that the projects people work on necessarily continue on, but I do think their appetite for that kind of work really gets blown up.

It’s creative and I think once that appetite, for that kind of work, has been created it’s hard to turn it off, which means these people are now demanding work environments that are more empowering, and allow them to work faster in smaller groups, more effectively, on interesting problems.

Historically in the large corporate environment there’s a certain amount of, “Well this is the way it has to be, because this is the way it has always been, and there is no other way.” I think, more and more you’re hearing in the corporate environment, “This is the way it has to be for us, because of this concern and this concern and this concern.”

I think the large corporate development cycle, is very much becoming not something that people are successfully able to argue is the right way, but they’re now arguing it’s the right way for them because of some special extenuating circumstances. Now, of course, everyone has special extenuating circumstances which makes them not all that special.

What do the projects look like for your events?
Kav: They’re all over the place, depending on what part of the world you’re in. I think, in general, for start-up weekend, it’s a lot of proto-businesses. At the beginning of the weekend, they often look like, “Hey I have an itch, I want to scratch around, not a technology problem I have”, like, “Oh my market is really good” by converting capital letters to lower case letters.

“Every time we go to a bar, it’s really annoying to wait in a long line at the bar, and it’s hard to get a drink, so I want an app to help do that. Tonight’s thing is over the course of the weekend, that office goes away right, because if you actually invested in the problem of “there’s always a line at the bar, it’s hard for me to get a drink”, there’s no business in solving that problem because the person who would pay to have that problem solved and that’s the bar.

That’s not a problem for them. They’re probably partnered or grouped with each other. They don’t give a shit if you have to wait.

In fact, optimally, someone is always about to wait or just waiting.

They start out quite often, like personal, itch scratching and then they tend to turn, if the folks actually do the work over the weekend, they tend to turn into concepts that make significantly more sense as a business.

There are some perennial favorites. We kind of joke, and this is a horrible thing to admit to, but we kind of joke that there should be a start-up weekend drinking game, where you drink every time, someone pitches and idea targeting affluent, young, white men.

Because every one that you go to, it’s like, “I want to build a dating site, it’s hard to meet women.” Well building a dating site is not going to solve that. “I want to build an app that makes it easier for deciding which restaurant to go to. I want to build an app that will help me find cool plans.” I think there’s a lot of good stuff there. Quite often [inaudible 12:36] at a restaurant.

Willow: Interesting.

Kav: A lot of it is micro-optimization of middle class to upper middle class white, young men.

Willow: I remember that, from one of the ones I was at.

Kav: Yeah, the dating app,for example, is exactly that. I understand it. Part of it is because you’ve got a weekend, you’re not going to really get too crazy about anything real. One of the one’s on my list, is I want an app where I can text it that I’m about to start drinking, and it will text me every hour, to ask me if I’ve had water recently, or to remind me to eat.

Then when I’m safe at home I text it, “I’m home, stop bothering me about water and stuff.”

That’s not a universal problem, the fact that I drink too much while not paying attention and forget to drink water and forget to eat. I don’t see that as a hit, but it would be an entertaining thing to build over a weekend.

I think hack-a-thons still keep to their roots a little bit in that, even though people are pretending to thinking about businesses, and pretending to be thinking about customers that are not themselves, I make a lot of info [inaudible 14:05]

What ends up happening to some of the projects after the event?
Kav: Franck will give you a bunch of statistics that he collected at the start-up weekend offices, to hear the actual numbers of how many teams continue on, how many projects continue on. I’m not certain I believe those numbers, but it would be worth getting them.

I think a lot of times, and I have no quantitative data, but from observation and my qualitative experience of it, a lot of the times, the teams keep working on the projects they’re working on. Particular teams that either placed, or really executed well over the weekend, they have a tendency to continue to execute well.

Their progress slows to almost nothing though, unfortunately, because they don’t devote enough time to it, and the people who are most valuable on those teams, are the people who are most over-committed already.

Another thing, there is it’s difficult for a start-up weekend project to turn into a real business, because the teams are quite often five to six people and investors are not going to give money for a founding team of five. Invariably also you pick each other because you met on Friday night. There are team personality and dynamics issues. There are competence issues with some of the people in the group.

Navigating that particular “Tetris piece” is quite often not something people succeed at. I think the ones that do really do a great job though.

The teams that are able to say, “Look dude, you didn’t help over the weekend, you were kind of a pain in the ass then. While you are the person with the most available free time, to be working on this, none of the rest of us have any time. There’s a reason for that, and we don’t need you, so goodbye.” I think teams that effectively say that, are the ones that can kick ass.

What are the attendees of your events like and what do they get out of the event?
Kav: I think, a lot of what they get out of the event, generally before I talk about the specific categories, in general, a lot of them meet people they want to work with in the future. A lot of it is a power networking thing. One of my favorite app pitches that you see time and time again at start-up weekend, is an app to help you more effectively network with people at events so you can make better connections.

If you look at start-up weekend, that’s exactly what it is. Everyone who is on the team, together, builds a pretty good bond. I’m definitely still in contact with all of the people from my first start-up weekend team, and I’m in regular contact with most of the people I’ve ever worked with at a start-up weekend on anything.

Some, more so than others, but, in general, we all keep in touch and we’re pretty close because of that shared pressure, shared past, shared struggle, shared striving towards the goal.

I think the networking or community building aspects of it are often undervalued. In terms of building a successful technology community, start-up community, any of these things. Like the value of having a group of people who worked together, even for just a few days, and know what each other are good at and bad at, and excited about, and not excited about, and how everyone responds to stress.

Do you become really mean? Do you over communicate? Do you under communicate? I think that’s really valuable.

As opportunities arise, we now have a network of people, who are well-connected to each other, but also who really, truly understand each other’s capabilities, and help move the right people in the right place at the right time.

I think, specifically, shape of attendees…We have three different attendee types at Start-up Weekend, traditionally, software developers, designers, and business people.

Business people is a bit of a catchall, and what I want each to get out of the event, I have three separate goals for each of those groups.

For me, [inaudible 19:01] Start-up Weekend experiences, one where you actually learn all of the lessons, even though they don’t apply or they’re not, specifically, the one lesson I want you to have learned for your role.

If you come in there and you’re a developer, I want you to learn just how fast you can build stuff, and how you could take an idea from zero to a working, awesome application in two days, because I think a lot of developers work in environments where they’re restricted, or with tools where they’re restricted, and they just don’t understand how fast they can actually build something.

You want the business people to understand that; it’s not their ideas that matter, and that to be successful in business, is not about you being really smart, or you having really good ideas. It has everything to do with your humility, and your ability to listen to your customers, and learn from them, effectively.

For designers, I want them to understand that not all the work that they could possibly do in the world is to spec. Not everything is agency work. They don’t have to act like they’re a slave to someone else’s vision.

Quite often, it’s hard to get designers to come to Start-up Weekend because they perceive it as an event where they’re going to go and work for someone else for free all weekend.

As developers, we don’t have that perspective at all. Developers see it as an opportunity to build something that they own that’s theirs. I want designers to gain that perspective as well .

Now, whether people learn those lessons or not, whether they take that away…Sometimes they learn what you want to teach them, and sometimes they have a more important lesson to learn.

Do you have a favorite story?
Kav: Well, my very favorite story. This is the big, “Why do I do this? Why is it exciting to me?” At a fundamental level actually it did happen at that first Start-up Weekend in Tel Aviv.

Part of it was, “I want to facilitate a lot more”, and probably why I’ve gone all over the world doing it now. I was in Ramallah giving a talk on using Visual Studio for startups because I was on the Visual Studio team at the time.

It was probably my fifth or sixth talk of the day, which was crazy because I had been told I was just going to go meet with some people, and shake some hands, and informally chat with a few people, and every company that we went to, there were like a million people there.

As a result, by the end of talking to a million people, I developed this pattern of questions that I would ask everyone in the audience, as they were coming up and thanking me for the talk.

I’d say, “What idea are you going to pitch at Start-up Weekend. Are you going to go? What idea are you going to pitch”?

There was this girl, who I asked, “Are you going to go to Start-up Weekend?” She said, “Yeah, maybe. Some of my friends are going, but I’m not really sure whether I want to.” I said, “Well, what idea are you going to pitch”? She was like, “Well, I have an idea, but it’s not any good. It’s a really bad idea.”

I’m like, “You should pitch it anyway.” She said, “Ah, you know, I don’t know. Like, it’s really not a good idea.” I said, “It doesn’t matter. Most of the ideas are going to be bad ideas. Just pitch it anyway. I’m sure it’ll be fine. It’s a really great experience to do it, so you should definitely come, and definitely pitch.”

She was like, “Well, maybe I’ll come.” Fast forward a few days. I’m at the start-up weekend, and I see that she’s there so I’m like, “All right. Are you excited to pitch your idea? You know how to take care of all that?”

She was like, “Well, no. I’m not going to pitch my idea. I definitely not. I came. I’ve gone that far. I’ve done that thing, but I’m not going to pitch”. I’m like, “Well, you should, even just for the practice of standing in front of a room full of potentially, honestly, hostile strangers.”

It’s really character building. I do hate to say it, but it is character building. It helps you get better at doing that again, and again, even if you just go up there and, basically, talk nonsense for a minute, and it’s only a minute. At Start-up Weekend the initial idea pitch is only a minute.

You can endure anything horrifying for a minute. I tried to sell her a few times, as people were networking, and she was like, “No. I’m not going to do it.” I was like, “All right, fine.” We go up and I look at the line, and she’s definitely not in the line of people pitching. They pitch. There are some good ones.

There are some really bad ones, including one by this guy. He was not particularly good, but he was like already bragging about it, honestly.

She gets up on stage because we let people go on after the beginning. She gets onstage, and pitches her idea. It’s actually a pretty good idea.

A social network thing, for people with kids who are trying to find…I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I think it was find activities for the kids. I’m not quite sure. She pitched her idea, and then everybody went to vote. They all vote. Her idea gets picked it turns out.

It comes to team recruiting time, and I’m just walking the room keeping an eye on everything. People are recruiting their teams, and I see that she is standing there, kind of by herself looking a little upset. I walk up to her, and I’m like, “Hey. What’s going on”?

She says, “Well, now, no one wants to work with me because I’m Palestinian. All the Israeli people are ignoring me.” The problem here is that, when you’re recruiting teams on start-up weekend you have to hustle.

It’s not something you can just expect people to come join your team. You’ve got to be like, “Hey, what do you do? You should be on my team. Hey, what do you do? You should be on my team.”

She really wasn’t doing that. She was standing back, and she was really saying like, “Oh, this is bs. Nobody wants to be on my team. They just voted for it because they were trying to be nice, but now they hate me.”

We took her around, and we talked to a few different folks who hadn’t found a team yet, and we got her a team of like four or five people who were decent, but one of the people was this arrogant, egotistical guy whose idea, of course,didn’t get picked, and let them go.

They were working, and I went to check in on them a few hours later, and they were working on the arrogant guy’s idea. He had taken over her team.

I was like, “Huh. This isn’t good,” but that’s part of the learning experience. We gave her a little bit of coaching, but didn’t really directly interfere, and then backed off again.

We found out about an hour later, that she had actually sat down with him within that hour, and said, “Look. Your idea didn’t picked, dude. Mine did. So we’re working on my idea. If you want to work on your idea, you can go do that somewhere else.”

She kicked him out of her team, which was really kind of awesome because she went from being afraid of everyone in the room, to being able to tell somebody, “Look. This isn’t what we’re doing.”

She then recruited some of the folks in Ramallah that hadn’t been able to get the permits to come into Tel Aviv. She recruited them and worked with them over Skype. She got her whole team working pretty solidly on the design page. They built a lot of stuff.

The thing they built was a pretty comprehensive, there was even a lot of crazy animation and stuff. There was a lot of good stuff there. She went and pitched it on Sunday, and did a marvelously great job, and it ended up coming in second or third place for the event. I think second place, and totally deserved it.

There was no like, “Oh, this is a Palestinian girl, we should give a Palestinian a slot on the winning teams.” No. She totally killed it. We finished up the event. We were celebrating and stuff.

We went out into the town, and I bumped into her a little bit later, before she was on her way back, and she said, “I just wanted to say, Thank you. Because before, whenever I wanted to try to do something, there was this voice in my head, or whatever, that would tell me, It’s probably not going to work. You’ll probably fail at it.”

She said, “I just wanted to thank you, because I know that voice is wrong. Like, I’ve seen it now. I did something I didn’t think I could do, and that’s awesome.” She was like, “It’s changed the way I think about what I’m capable of doing.”

Willow: Well, that’s fucking awesome.

Kav: I was like, “Fuck yeah. That is awesome.” I was like, “I want to do more of this.” I want to do more of empowering people, who don’t think that they are going to succeed here, to succeed at these things. Right?

Those are my favorite Start-up Weekends. It’s part of why I like to go to crazy countries that no one in the US has ever heard of. Yeah, it’s cool to a crazy country no one’s ever heard of, but the reason I really like it, is I feel like they’re a lot of people there who get ignored. They get overlooked, I guess. You know?

Willow: Mm-hmm.

Kav: Kind of an underdog nation. As individuals, I don’t know that they always see that, but there’s definitely, always, a little bit of a like, “Well, if we were in the US, this would be so much simpler.”

It’s like, “Guys, you actually have great opportunity here. In the US it’s like being in the middle of the ocean filled with sharks. Every little micro optimization already exists in the US. You have a huge opportunity.”

“Your country is, quite often, just getting mobile devices in everyone’s hands. You could be creating significant businesses that operate in this country or this region, that just wouldn’t be viable stateside.”

•    Big Picture
Do you see yourself as a part of a wider movement?
Kav: I would like to. The very deep reason I do a lot of the things that I do, both at work as a part of Start-up Weekend, this is very short version of the phrase is, “I want to end the industrial revolution.”

What I mean by that, is that we’ve created all of these systems around what work is, and the making of things is built on this model of optimization, and consistency, and streamlining, and quantification.

I read a great article the other day. It was something about how Google doesn’t ever want to hire anyone who stands out too much because, of course, if they did, then they would have keep that person forever, because what would happen if that person moved on.

They would lose all the value and, potentially, the things that that person had created would unmaintainable. I just want to get rid of that mindset. I just don’t think that that’s healthy.

Attempting to treat people in a reductive manner, takes away some of our humanity. A big part of the movement that I see myself as a part of, is ending this idea of leadership, as this ivory tower job.

Not ivory tower, because ivory tower is education, but very distant from the front line. I want to bring all of the strategic thinking, all of the leadership to the workers, so that they, as groups, can make the right choices. Maybe that sounds communist.

That’s really what I believe. I believe it’s time for the Protestant Reformation of work. The idea that the boss is the one with smart ideas is ridiculous. I see this time and time again.

I talk to new, cool managers at all these companies. There are people who used to do the work. They used to be software developers. They’ve gotten into a project management, whatever the lead role, and you talk to them about their work.

They’re like, “Yeah. Sometimes, I really love just doing the work, but what I really want to do is influence what work gets done because I have all these ideas, because I’ve been so close to the front lines.”

“I’ve been so close to the customer. I know what the customer needs. I don’t have that strategic scope to make those decisions. So, I’m going to work my tail off so that in 10 years, I can have the reach to control in what direction we move.”

For me, that just seems ridiculous. First of all, by the time you get there, you’re ten years out of date. There’s some other new kid who’s sitting there thinking, “Jesus, we’re executing on a strategy that’s ten years out of date.”

“I’m going to get into the leadership track so that I can reach the point that I can have a say on product strategy.” We need to get into this mode of including everyone more into strategy and leadership. I think, it’s more fulfilling. I think, it’s more effective.

Do you think that hack-a-thons are accomplishing that idea?
Kav: To some extent. I think, they’re showing people what a world where small groups of dedicated individuals with access to the tools to develop strategic insight, what those teams could look like.

I worry a little bit about them, occasionally, being prescriptive. Part of it is we really want to be prescriptive. We’re trying to break another pattern. I do worry about any pattern that’s learned, rather than discovered, as seeming a little forced.

I do think, in general, it’s because it’s exposing people to that way of working. I do think it changes that.

A lot of the hierarchy that exists in organizations today, is about maintaining a perfect picture of what’s going on across the organization.  I think, that seems like a valuable thing, when you don’t recognize the cost. Flexibility, you’re paying for. I think hackathons [inaudible 34:22] help teams understand what it would look like, if they weren’t spending so much of their time focused on tracking the work, and would just focus on doing the work, and making sure they’re doing the right work.

Do you have anything else you want to add to it?
Kav: Probably, but I think that’s good. If you think of anything that seems like I [inaudible 34:57] .

Willow: One of the things that’s come up is the difference between…First of hack-a-tons, were in hacker spaces and hacker cons.

Then, you have ones emerging around the same time out of the open source community, and out of businesses that wanted to do work sprints. It seems like the groups that are doing the entrepreneurship are even newer than all that.

How do you feel about the tie-back to roots. This is not a part of the formal interview, but I’d still like to know your input on it. How does this tie into open source or hacker e-source, or whatever else?

Kav: I didn’t mention this in the earlier part, but it’s worth mentioning. A big part of the “seeing how fast you can develop things” comes from leveraging open source platforms, rather than whatever legacy, corporate, proprietary crap their company’s been using.

I think, that the hack-a-ton, is as much as space to explore a business concept that you’re not familiar with, as it is a space to explore technology that you’re not as familiar with. An opportunity to explore different technology stacks in a low-cost way.

I think, people are making smarter decisions, about what they want to use. As a result, I think there are actually two classes of developers these days.

There are developers who are keeping their ear to the ground, in terms of what new tech is coming out, what’s interesting. What frameworks might be worth playing with? Who’s going to make their lives easier?

They’re kind of dialed into the open source community. They’re trying early versions of stuff. They’re giving feedback. They’re submitting pull requests. Sometimes, they’re even really heavily engaged in the community. They’re giving talks on this stuff.

Then, there are developers who are like, they learned to program years ago. They got a job doing .net stuff, java stuff, or whatever. That’s what they do. They don’t see it as their responsibility to be aware of the latest stuff.

Quite often when they do look at the latest stuff, they find a reason why it’s dumb, rather than really being open to the exploration of new technology.

Given the way the open source community has leveraged all that contribution that it has, it’s actually becoming this generational difference in the capabilities of developers.

Developers who are stuck on an old stack, and aren’t investing in learning new stacks, are slow hands. There’s often trade-offs. They’re code is often more stable, but the idea that you can produce anything in a weekend is insane to them.

They just operate on a whole different time scale. Meanwhile, these others that are getting really into those stacks, contributing, see themselves as part of the larger software community, that helps each other build better software are getting faster and faster and faster, and better and better and better.

Willow: I was typing.. It’s OK.

Kav: I think, that ties into a lot of the philosophical arguments around waterfall, agile, and even some of the post-agile stuff. I think, agile software development methodologies are being pretty heavily co-opted by the system, to turn into waterfall.

Big corporations keep modifying agile, so that it works with their business. What works for their business often means, it goes back to being exactly what it wasn’t really meant to do; which is project out how long it would take to develop software.

Two years, in advance and plan out a feature map and all this… It’s just stuff that was… Agile was really meant to support the developer community, and encourage everyone to be more honest with each other. I’ve seen implementations ignore all that.

Meanwhile, the other guys are starting to ask the question, and it’s the question we focus on, [inaudible 39:47] on delivery product. Making no accountability for what product is built, why, is unacceptable.

Just having the customer representative come to my meetings, and tell me what priority the feature is; that works if I’m a waiter. As a responsible software developer, I shouldn’t think of myself as a waiter. I should think of myself as a doctor.

I’m not somebody who takes your order for an application you won’t want, and gives you that application. I’m somebody who diagnoses your problem, and develops the right application through software.

Willow: You’re so great.

Kav: Thanks. I think the more developers think of themselves that way, and the more the community that works on software thinks of themselves that way, the better our software will be, and the better we’ll be at solving the real problems that we have in the world. instead of this stupid, made-up shit.

I do think hack-a-tons help with that a lot, because if you can get people out of the building. If you can get them talking to customers, they begin to understand it. Their vision of what the problem is, is not correct.

Just asking the customer, “Hey, what’s your problem?” is not going to get you a meaningful answer. There’s the apocryphal story, that I’m sure you probably heard. If not from me, then from somebody else about NASA and space pens.

It’s not a true story, but it’s a perfect example of life. You don’t ask people what they want, as a solution. You ask them what they struggles with, and then you design the solution. You’re the designer. The rise of the problem-solving designer, rather than the visual designer or the interaction designer. I think it’s going to be a really interesting goal in the next few years.

Willow: That’s what I’ve got.

Kav: Hopefully, it will replace the stupid scrum master role. Scrum master should not be a job title.

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