Perttu Lähteenlahti

    I hack, therefore I am?

    Some stories and thoughts from hackathons

    If everything goes as planned, I will be attending my 50th hackathon this year. For those who don’t see any weigh in this statement, this totals up to 2400 hours of understanding problems, coding, designing, and pitching.

    But why 50 hackathons? It all started out as a naive dream to be able to use the word hackathon superstar with confidence. Later on, when I founded my second company, competing in them became a method for getting clients. If you compete in 50 hackathons, you’re bound to run into some potential clients and generate some media hype, at least that’s what I think.

    With the win ratio of 1:3 my journey to a self-proclaimed hackathon superstar has been everything but fun and easy. I’ve lost a lot more than just weekends. The effects of this project have started to resemble those of substance abuse. This has led me to seriously consider whether this all is actually worth it. But before going into conclusions, let’s start from the beginning.

    The magical and inspiring story of how everything started

    “…second to the right, and straight on till morning”

    About two years ago I attended my first hackathon. Because I was too insecure to go alone and make friends I begged some of my friends to come with me. Not so surprisingly most of them had better plans for that weekend, than sitting in front of a computer, but I did get one friend to join me. A bit over a year later that friend ended up founding an education centered hackathon.

    Over the weekend the two of us desperately tried to code an Android application with our limited Java skills. In the end, our little crappy application did not win any prizes, and although the prizes should never be the main goal of going to hackathons, it still hurts to lose. After the weekend I felt empty and decided I would never again attend a hackathon. It had been such an unworthy and defeat-ridden experience that there was no point in doing it again.

    Few of the things I’ve vowed to never to do again have stuck. Two months later, as I was scrolling through a university syllabus, my eyes crossed paths on a hackathon with an ill-defined challenge. That year I was aiming at getting over 100 ECTS in a single year. Hackathons like these that provided 2 points for a single weekend seemed perfect for this type of behavior. I like to humor myself with the thought of there being a magical force that brought me to this hackathon. After all, it did lead to some awesome things in my life. Although I know very well that if it had not been for my greed to get easy credits, I most definitely would have not gone.

    But I did end up participating in that hackathon despite the fact my computer broke a day before that, which resulted in me feeling completely useless for most of the hackathon. Additionally, the week before this had been hard — to say the least. The mind filled with past weeks problems, fights and whatnot I actually promised myself I would go and leave after 2 hours with the help of an elaborate lie about diarrhea if things did not look interesting enough.

    In the end, I did not have to use that lie at all. I ended up joining a team which consisted of some peculiar computer scientist and for most of the weekend I looked in awe of how good one them was at coding up a webpage. One of them also tried to fix my computer (despite the good effort I eventually ended up walking to a 24/7 IT-kiosk in the middle of the night and buying a new one). Anyway, our team mostly talked shit, and ate pizza instead of some serious hacking. We had fun, and although we did not win, my competitive soul did not feel even slightly defeated.

    I continued running into my team members from time to time after the hackathon and once founded a company with them.

    The adverse effects of attending hackathons

    Loss of sleep, arrhythmia (so many energy drinks), severe anxiety, broken heart, diarrhea, weight gain, weight loss, bad skin, are few of the things I’ve endured because of hackathons. Some of these are easily avoidable, some are bad luck, and some are something completely else. They are however things that make hackathons feel so much more real than just sitting at home.

    Besides to all the shitty things your body wants to go through during the hackathons there are some things you don’t see coming. About half a year ago, while I was participating in two hackathons at the same time, I got into an argument with my team. The argument was about, whether we should just quit because after continuous hours of working we were still no closer to solving the problem. At that exact same time, my then girlfriend was seeking comfort from another man, which I accidentally found out a day later. Oh and my team was right, we should have quit, as it turned out to be that we had actually reinvented the wheel and no one wants to award that.

    The most noticeable adverse effect of attending hackathons is the loss of free time. I’ve become decent at doing other things during hackathon weekends. For example in this years Ultrahack, I competed in three teams (which all ended up winning prizes) and also moved from my old apartment to a new one in a single weekend.

    But why even go then?

    “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

    The pros and cons of attending this many hackathons (or attending hackathons in general) are a mixed bunch. Personally, I feel that the things I’ve gained from hackathons outweigh the things I’ve lost. But to be sure, let’s recap some of the things from the past two years. So several hackathons later I’ve:

    • co-founded a company that has more hackathon wins under its belt than any other company in Finland
    • given a spark to education hackathon and helped in organizing it
    • had the chance to pitch at the stages of Slush and Suomi-Areena
    • won prizes totaling up to approximately 80 000 euros

    Hey, those perks sound pretty good! But I do want to highlight some the “negative” things, so I’ve also:

    • gotten into several rows with my dearest friends over minuscule details of the hackathons concepts
    • alienated people working on an education hackathon because of relationship stuff
    • sweated profoundly before every pitch
    • saw other people take away the main prize, totaling up to 300 000 euros

    Yeah… I guess it depends on your point of view which outweighs which.

    Conclusion?

    As I’m writing this and getting ready to click publish it’s less than 24 hours before my next hackathon. This time I’m going without my team — a thing I’ve done many times before. Yet I can’t help but feel lonely, insecure and stressed. If this was a job, I would have quit ages ago. Then again I’m bad at quitting jobs. For five years now I’ve mostly worked at least two jobs at the same time.

    Not all hackathons are created equal. Most of the hackathons I’ve been in have been great. Some of them have been downright shitty. Some have been more stressful than others and other times I’ve ended up having a lot of fun without a care in the world. Every hackathon that I take part in seems to chip away a little part of me. It remains to be seen whether that has been a good thing. No project is worth it, it does not require sacrifices. Hopefully, I’ve sacrificed enough to start seeing the benefits from venture to the magical world of hackathons.


    Perttu Lähteenlahti

    Personal blog of Perttu Lähteenlahti. For more developer oriented posts checkout perttu.dev