Is there a point to hackathons anymore? Does Sri Lanka need them?


All of us are walking toward the stage. Everyone’s nervous. Who isn’t at these hackathons? Nobody likes presentations and immediately things go wrong. The projector isn’t working for some reason. After a minute of shoving the cable in and out, it wakes up and decides to do its job. Finally, Roshan can begin his presentation to tell the judges how we built the next Amazon overnight.

He was the unlucky soul that drew the short straw. The rest of us get to awkwardly stand behind the laptop. This is the hard part but once it’s done, everyone can go home. After that, we can all grab a shower, relax, and add one more line to the CV. Hopefully, it’ll help me land a job after I’m done with uni. Should I add the code to GitHub? Meh, not like I’ll ever look at it again.

Welcome to Sri Lankan Hackathons in 2018

Ever since we started ReadMe, we’ve been covering hackathons of all shapes and sizes. These days, we find them happening at least once a month. So if you’re a developer, you can throw a rock, and chances are it’ll land inside a hackathon somewhere in the middle of Colombo. Most likely it’ll be inside Dialog’s Auditorium or a university.

Hackathons | Sri Lanka
You’d be forgiven for thinking these were all taken at one event held inside the Dialog Auditorium

Yet, experienced developers are rarely found inside these hackathons. The vast majority of hackathon participants today are undergraduates either in their first or second year of university. Many identify themselves as software geeks who like to hack and build things. But building a startup? Sure it’s nice but that’s intimidating. Yet, this wasn’t always the case.

Originally, the many hackathons in Sri Lanka were conducted with the goal of building startups. The participants of these hackathons too entered with this mentality. Some like the old Colombo hackathon succeeded with startups like ShortKast and Yamu having been born inside their walls.

Hackathons | Sri Lanka
Scenes from the old Colombo Hackathon where startups like ShortKast and Yamu were born

Every hackathon since has tried and failed to replicate this success. Yet, at the end of these hackathons, nothing materializes. Everyone simply goes home and waits until the next one comes. Thus, the cycle continues.

So where did it all go wrong?

One could easily point at the participating undergraduates and make a strong argument. We ourselves have seen teams from the University of Moratuwa repeatedly attend hackathons. Even after winning, they return to other hackathons. The same name and the same idea with tweaks so minor that they’re negligible.

Hackathons | Sri Lanka
“All three of teams presented unique ideas,” said the judges of a hackathon

Yet who can blame them? At every hackathon, the judges say, “All of the ideas we saw today were unique.” It’s a lazy attempt at pushing participants to build a startup and they know it. In fact, in the 6 years we’ve been covering hackathons only once have we seen a judge tell a team, “I’ve seen you guys before at another hackathon a few months back. You pitched this same exact idea there. So what have you been doing since?”

Furthermore, from the moment undergraduates join university they’re told, “When you graduate you’re competing with everyone! Not just each other but also those from other universities. So if everyone has a degree then what makes you special?” For those in IT, winning a few hackathons is a quick and easy answer to that question.

Easy being the key word there. To quote a regular participant, “You get to skip a day of lectures for a T-shirt and free food. All you have to do is just write some code and make a presentation. That’s it! So who wouldn’t want to attend a hackathon? It’s fun!”

Yet to paint every undergraduate that attends hackathons with this brush would be narrow-minded. For every participant that comes for the freebies, there’s another that spends the entire night coding. Running on coffee, a hackathon is a blank canvas to them. A place where ideas and technologies can be tested out with critical feedback.

Of course, neither one will go on to build a startup at the end of the hackathon. But that’s alright

The blind desire to build startups

In its quest to build as many tech startups as possible, the tech community has forgotten the purpose of hackathons. They’re not a place where startups are born. They’re a place where products are built. It’s where developers, designers, and everyone else gets together to build something cool overnight.

So is it really wrong for the countless undergraduates that sign up for hackathons not to have a viable business idea? Not really. In fact, it’s unrealistic when they’ve yet to enter the workforce. They don’t understand the inner machinations of any industry.

Hackathons | Sri Lanka
It’s the exception rather than the norm for successful entrepreneurs to be young. Click here to learn more.

As such, it’s a weak argument to point fingers at these undergraduates. It’s unfair to blame them for not starting businesses. This isn’t the reason why hackathons are pointless. Rather, it’s because we expect startups to be born out of hackathons. And this is something that needs to change. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but the tech community needs to accept that competitions don’t build startups anymore.

At the end of the day, entrepreneurs building actual businesses are rarely at hackathons. They’re outside busy validating their ideas, building MVP’s, and trying to sell. For proof, one only needs to look at PickMe. Its founders weren’t regulars at hackathons and instead focused on building the company.

So what should we do?

For starters, we need to truly accept that a business cannot be built overnight. Rather, simply encourage anyone attending hackathons to build something. Of course, whatever the teams build should solve a problem. That means there should be a clear go to market strategy for the products they build. But we shouldn’t expect it to be perfect.

The products built should be judged based on a technological perspective first and a business perspective second. However, before judging even begins, the teams should be given a clear scope. In Sri Lanka, we see most hackathons give teams a blank slate to build a startup. This has resulted in many participants simply being confused and copying existing startups.

We don’t have a shortage of ideas at hackathons

Rather what we don’t have at hackathons is a clearly defined scope. And this is where corporates can play a more active role. At the moment, most corporates see hackathons as a way of branding or community building to attract new recruits. Thus, they offer money as sponsors and then take a backseat unless they send one representative as a judge.

Global giants like Ford host hackathons to find innovative ideas to their problems and survive (Image credits: Ford)
Companies like Ford host hackathons to find innovative ideas to their problems and survive (Image credits: Ford)

Yet, there are benefits for corporates to be more actively involved in hackathons. By openly sharing some of the big problems they’re facing, it’s possible to get fresh perspectives. At the same time, they can also be a way of identifying and attracting fresh talent. One such corporate that recently did so is Singapore Airlines.

The airline is currently hosting its app challenge. For this, it has given free access to its APIs and that of its partners. More importantly, Singapore Airlines has also openly shared what problems it faces in the hopes that developers can find solutions to them. If the airline likes what a team builds, then it has offered to fly them to Singapore and work with them on implementing it.

One of the challenges Singapore Airlines has is ensuring its mobile app is relevant for users. This is one of the challenges its thrown at developers (Image credits: Singapore Airlines)
Improving engagement on its app is one of the specific challenges Singapore Airlines has thrown at developers (Image credits: Singapore Airlines)

In the above example, Singapore Airlines clearly defined a scope for the teams. At the same time, it also offered them resources and almost a month to come up with a viable solution. Furthermore, it also offered to work with the teams to implement the solution. However, implementation is a two-way street. For it to happen the teams must be willing to work – without worrying about degrees.

So is there a point to hackathons?

If we’re using them as a vehicle to create startups then the answer to that would be, “No there isn’t.” Many of the participants at hackathons today are university students. As such, this would be an unrealistic goal. But if we think of hackathons as a place where products are built.

Products, which are built to solve specific problems. Then with the right involvement from corporates, we’d likely see more positive and actionable results. However, at the moment, this only applies to Colombo. If we look beyond Colombo, it’s different.

Hackathons | Sri Lanka
Hackathons are pointless as a tool to build startups. Rather they should be a way to introduce technology to those unfamiliar with it

There are communities in rural that are yet to fully understand what technology can do. For such communities, hackathons are a way to start looking at their problems in a new light.  In fact, this is what we’ve seen unfold at the Yarl Geek Challenge over the years in Jaffna.

So yes, there is a point to hackathons. But only if we stop trying to manufacture startups out of them.


  1. Before the commodity hackathon, there were the original hackers (see Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Steven Levy). Hacking essentially meant building a scrappy, quick and probably an ingenious/non-conformist solution to a personal/common pain. It was perhaps done out of hours (most were from academic backgrounds), just because the allure of the build appealed to the builder. These builders were genuinely interested in technology and problems they were solving. No one asked them to do it, nor there was a primary financial or business motivation. Some of these solutions were good enough to gain followings (initial user bases) and grew out of their breeches, and the original builders were passionate enough about their babies to accept external help (dorm room buddies, angel investments etc) in order to see them grow.

    Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and countless other companies grew from this model. They wouldn’t have grown from a commodity ‘hackathon’, where a passion about what they built would be absent, replaced by short term motivation for goodies/swag and beer/food.

    It takes an astounding amount of passion, technical ability and persistence to build an impactful product and a startup around it. That is no commodity.

    Today’s mass hackathon mentality tends to focus just on the end part of this. That’s unlikely to produce, to say the least.

  2. Though I’m not a one with a teach identity, I myself has witnessed couple of hackathons too. Here I stand with you sir. Indeed hackathons must have a purpose and as we can see other fields like Law, Communication and Health services can too use the elements of this to make a platform for new ideas to take the field.

  3. To start with I am not a big fan of Hackathons in Sri Lanka. Here in Sri Lanka, the whole meaning of hackathon is misunderstood. Mostly what they do is come with some ideas and ask to build it. The whole meaning of hackthons are not that. Normally in an hackthon, all the teams are given a task. Who ever come with a solution that robust is a the winner.

    For an example think you have a code function which is not nicely coded, and its not efficient and its not optimized. And the challenge is to fix that function or code. Thats the main idea of an hackthon.

    Its pity to see most big shots having hackathons are come to steal others ideas, or buy them for cheap. Rs. 100K for first price is nothing for them rather than spend millions on development teams to build the same idea.

    Thats my two cent on hackathons in Sir Lanka

  4. As I see it, the major IT companies have no other way to evaluate the industry exposure or technical capabilities of an undergraduate. This is the only way that they would determine if the student is capable of being creative and having potential to work with them. GPA doesnt alone promise them an internship or a job. And it should not, because given the curriculum in universities, you can’t say they have updated knowledge.
    If these competitions are not hackathons, then similar method has be there to evaluate one’s critical thinking etc. These always variables in an equation, at least change those, if the constants are not reassignable.


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