Friday, January 18, 2013

Corporate Hackathons: The Fine Line Between Engaging and Exploiting

Last week I saw that Campbell soup was “inviting developers to hack the kitchen” by hosting a coding competition around their recipe API. I posted on Twitter and that “I’m tired of corporations ‘inviting’ us to do their work for them.”

That hit a nerve, both with Campbell soup’s marketing people and with developers. The Campbell’s folks took exception to my comment but the developers hanging out in ADN asked me to write about it. I decided to listen to the ADN gang.

Campbell soup Global Head of Digital and Social Adam Kmiec fired off a tweet snarking that “I’ll assume we shouldn’t send you or your organization any RFPs in the future.” Fair enough, since my tweet was pretty snarky. I never thought I’d get into it with a soup company on Twitter (strange times), but I’d like to address the larger topic here: Is it really worth it for developers to participate in corporate hackathons? I’ll just use Campbell’s “Hack The Kitchen” shindig as an example of corporate hackathons at large.

Update (1/20/2012): Adam appears to have deleted his tweets stating that he 'shared his opinion about me & my company to every colleague he has client-side and agency-side'.  
Thanks saurik.

What’s the Use?
Corporations are obviously under enormous pressure to get with the 21st century and appear relavent in the digital age. Their brand marketers are tasked with coming up with new and novel ways of making sure people are thinking and talking about their brands. Obviously in this age of mobile, that includes making the brand available on as many platforms and screens as possible.

It makes perfect sense for Campbell’s to make an API of recipes for dishes made from Campbell’s family of products. If they get enough people to use the data in the API, it obviously builds brand caché and could drive sales (Ranchero Enchilada Casserole, anyone?)

But what’s in it for the developers?

$25,000 - $50,000, that’s what. “Woot! Sign me up!” right?

Slow down Speedy, let’s look at what you need to do before you can collect.
  1. You need to think of an imaginative way to use their recipe data and send them your idea before Feb 1. This is open to everyone in the US. You need to describe what makes it great and what you’ll need to actually deliver. Easy.
  2. Campbell’s will choose up to 30 ideas and then (and only then) give you access to the API. That happens on Feb 11. You will then have three weeks to code on your idea.
  3. After the three weeks, they will select up to 10 finalists to come to New York (at your own expense) and pitch your app to the judges. If you don’t want to pay to travel to NYC, you can do it via videoconference. Presentation day is March 22.
  4. At some undisclosed point in time, they will pick one winner and one or more runners-up. The winner will get a $25,000 prize plus a $25,000 contract to actually make the market-ready app. It’s not clear whether they will even pick runners-up, but if they do, they will get 10 grand for their work. No contract for you.

It’s a contest. There are prizes. Got it.

Calling All Developers
We already know what Campbell’s gets out of this whole deal: The buzz associated with “engaging the developer community” and a nice launch of some product that lets people look up new ways to use V8 carrot juice. They also get to have a look at some pretty good developers.

But for  approximately 93% of the fortunate developers that “won” the chance to write code against the Campbell’s soup API (!), they get… nothing.

Now you might be wondering, “Forbes says that software developers continue to have the most sought-after skills in America. So why would I go and do a bunch of free work for the soup guys?” Good question.

Perhaps you’ll make 50 grand. You’ll no doubt get to meet some smart people. You never know, Campbell’s might offer you a job. You get to travel to New York and talk to some bigwigs. And you might change the way people decide what to make for dinner. Who knows?

The majority of participating developers, however, will get nothing. So if you actually are a software developer, and if you really want to make some guaranteed money and meet some smart people, just get a job doing software development. EVERYONE is hiring. If you want to go it alone, just pay $25 to Google (or $99 to Apple) and start writing and selling apps.

Not All Hackathons Are Created Equal
I’m not “against” the hackathon model.  For instance, Google just announced their hackathon for Google Glass. Do I think it's a waste of time for developers to enter this hackathon too?  No.

The point I'm making is that developers who are thinking of entering this type of contest should consider what they'll be left with if they are not the winner.  In the case of the Campbell soup Hacroutonathon (thank you +Kosso K), you'll be left with no money and an app that you spent a ton of time writing that's somewhat dependent on the Campbell soup API.  Did you gain experience with a technology that's likely to be marketable? No.  You learned the ins and out of the Campbell's recipe API.  

How does that measure up to something like the Google Glass hackathon?  For starters, you had to have paid $1500 months ago to join the early Google Glass developer's program.  That sort of separates the men from the boys when it comes to developer intent.  Those who paid will get an actual Google Glass device at the event.

In addition, Google has not mentioned what type of award, if any, will be given to the winners of the hackathon.  But award or not, ALL of the participants in Google Glass Found hackathon walk away with highly marketable experience and knowledge.  Google is not dangling a carrot in order to get some apps written on the cheap.  The same cannot be said for Campbell's.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not writing a manifesto here. I’m not making a stand against coding competitions, hackathons, or code fests. I think they’re great when they’re held for the greater good or for the benefit of the participants themselves. (Here’s a nice list of hackathons sponsored by open government data.) But I think it’s a little lame when a big corporation tries to leverage this model in order to advance their own brand without giving all the participants something worthwhile. I don’t think they’re being evil or unethical. Just lame.

Let’s look at what is really going on. The corporation wants something. And to get it, they are going to have 30 people build 30 apps. They are only going to pay for one or two of them. I mentioned this to Campbell’s guys during an email exchange and they told me that the losers are “welcome to take that ‘rejected’ idea and pitch it to a VC or launch it as your own app if you please.”

I know what you’re thinking, “What am I supposed to do with an app that uses the Campbell’s soup recipe API now that I no longer have API access?” Another good question. The answer from the Cambell’s guys: “I don’t think the idea is necessarily reliant on our specific API, if it has legs it can work elsewhere as well.”

To me, it’s similar to someone who says, “I made some homemade bread and want a sandwich made from it. Have 30 people come to my house and make different kinds of sandwiches. Tell them to bring their own sandwich fixings. I’ll buy the one sandwich I like best. Tell the other 29 people that I’ll want my bread back, they can take their sandwich contents and try to sell them to someone else.”

So is Campbell’s doing anything predatory, evil, or unethical?  No. They are being totally open about how this whole thing will go down. But my question to software developers out there who are thinking of devoting any real effort to a corporate hackathon like this is, “Why?”

twitter: @jamiemsmyth @jamiesmyth


  1. I joined a hackathon once. The voting ended up being a popularity contest – whoever had the most Facebook friends got the most votes and won the contest. The quality of the app was immaterial, it all came down to who could get Granny to click the Like button the most. The prize was $10,000, which was a nice little treat for the guy whose app "won". I learned my lesson.

    I don't always work, but when I do, I prefer to get paid.

    1. "I don't always work, but when I do, I prefer to get paid."

  2. Perhaps to an aspiring developer or someone looking to improve their resume, it's a good fit.

    Typically an 'app idea' is the most closely guarded secret of a developer who is dreaming big, even if 7/8 of them are described ala "It's just like FB, but..." This hackathon smacks of being a way to crowd source a handful of ideas gratis.

    I once attended a Google Maps hackathon. No cash and prizes but a chance to show and tell, meet other devs, and bounce ideas off of their staff who walked around to chat. Plus they had soda and ping pong. A pretty nice field trip IMHO.

  3. I feel this way about most promotional contests that require hours of work.

  4. So what about things like this "Hack Day" at a "Technological Institute" in "my area?":

    1. Hey Nick I browsed through the site and it looks pretty decent. I like how they are focused on helping students and the way they encourage failure ("Fail Harder!"). *Seems* to be decent.

  5. My 13 year old is all over this contest. As for myself - a programmer paid by the hour - not so much. nuff said.

  6. Who owns the submitted ideas? The ones they don't choose? Can you simply take the proffered $25K and skip the contract? And retain ownership of your idea?

    1. You retain ownership unless Campbell's pays you. If you don't want the $25K contract to further develop your idea, I suppose you can just give them your code and take your prize and part ways. Read the legal on the site for the fine print.

  7. Currently working on a really big hackathon for the big corporate I work for. From day 1 the pitch has always been get 500 developers in a room and let them go nuts aka "build cool stuff".

    It's worked and we are just finalising out venues :)

  8. corp hackathons are just a way to get free R&D from really bright people, and there are enough suckers out there to actually do it, cause it's "really cool man". Also in this economy, when someone dangles $25k and your ego thinks you're "the best man" there is enough incentive to waste your time...Good Luck to all the naive suckers, the corps will rape you every single time, does not matter if it's soup, or search, or juice, or shiny new gizmo in the sky....

  9. People in the design world have, for quite some time, been really negative about design "competitions", which are obviously similar affairs.

  10. Here I thought it was just me. Thanks for confirming my bias. I've walked away from a lot of crowdsourced, @home, and partnership projects asking myself the same question, feeling the frustration a few of the other commenters also seem to feel. Not only 'why?' of myself but also "Why would they?"

  11. Why will people enter? It's like the lottery: the overall expectation of gain for the sum of the developers is negative, but the magnitude of the prize will tempt people to waste their time.

  12. It's the collaboration and knowledge sharing that matters.

  13. Wouldn't perhaps fair to compare corporate hackatons with e.g. architecture contests? If it were just working for free nobody would enter the contest?

  14. I'm not a developer cuz big price stuff money and shits... If I take my time to go to a hackaton is because I really like the tech involve or I can take some value of the experience!

    1. In the case of the Campbell Soup Kitchen API contest, you would neither get big prize money, nor value out of the experience. (Campbell API on a resume, anyone?)

    2. lol sure, u are right about that my only point is this: as a developer if you're going to focus on a project for free make sure u love it or u can get some stuff from the experience in your advantage...

      Of course the Soup stuff is not the case but I think depending on the event you can learn a lot and meet some cool people to on this type of events.

  15. Back in '89 I did a Hackathon at a game company, each winner received a free game. One winner ended up winning every game. When he graduated from high school, I hired him as my assistant. When I left the company, he took my place. The contest was very good for the company and very good for the one talented kid that got noticed and very very good for me as I was able to take credit for it all and with the new kid helping out, I was finally able to sleep late in the morning.

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