This weekend I spent a crazy, sleepless 24 hours at Facebook NYC HQ’s inaugural hackathon.
For those not in the field, hackathons are basically really condennsed, usually 24-hour tech competitions in which a big group of programmers (and sometimes designers) get together, form teams and try to make a usable, cool project. For anyone who’s ever coded before, it’s easy to see how insane of a deadline that is, hence lots of caffeine, little sleep, and really tired eyes. For everyone else, this concept sounds basically like insane torture. I used to think that too (you can read a little about it here in this post I wrote for hackNY), but they are actually fun! Really.
Anyway, the hackathon kicked off as usual with a little self-promo blurb from Facebook, then a little brainstorming pep talk (since, ideally, you are supposed to come up with the concept during the competition, too, like Iron Chef (basically the best cooking show ever but only the original Japanese version with voice dubbing)). To lead off the ideas, the emcee posed a typical hackathon prompt: what problems in your life are there that you’d like to solve?
I never realized until yesterday, when my crazy genius/totally awesome rooomate brought it to my attention, what a problematic question that is, not only for hackathons, but with respect to Silicon Valley/web 2.0 startups in general. Most of the participants in web 2.0 startups are fairly privileged: there may be some self-made men and women, high school dropouts and the like, but the majority do tend to stem from elite private schools, because, let’s face it: when a small company needs to hire good developers fast without the luxury for deliberation, brand matters.
There’s nothing wrong with solving “first world problems”, building social networking sites, or making mobile games. I believe that all of the above are great excercises of human creativity and can lead to good, just on a different plane. However, it’s important for all these talented and hardworking developers to realize that perhaps it’s time to shift the focus away from introspection. Startups are filled with brilliant, bold employees who are out to change the world. Perhaps it’s time to look beyond the first world.