That shining Dell Venue tablet, the glowing green Razer gaming keyboard. Next thing you know, your laptop keyboard is covered in drool. It took me 3 MLH Hackathons to win my first prize (albeit a sponsor prize), but now that I have it in my hands I realize how ridiculous it is to hack for a prize.
The Proposition of Value
For one, MLH prizes are totally not worth the effort. If PayScale is to be trusted, the average Student developer with no university degree and one year of experience in Rails or Python earns an average of $60,000 dollars in Toronto, Canada.
Do some simple math, and that averages out to about $30/hour. MLH Hackathons are about 36 hours long, so that works out to about $1080 worth of very very hard work. The value of that Dell Venue tablet? Dell tells me less than $500
A high school grad can earn $1080 writing RoR or Python in the same time it takes you to do your hack
In fact, the highest concrete number I could find on prizes was about $1400, presented to first place at PennApps XII. If you are a high school student with mad programming and idea skills capable of winning some of the largest hackathons in the world, then congrats. If you are a rare pepe, congrats to you too. In the event that you are human however, you really don't stand to profit.
The Time-Worthiness of Hackathons
So are Hackathons worth your time and effort? My answer? Hackathons are most definitely worth it.
If your hackathon experience revolves around getting that prize, you don't get the point of a hackathon. In my 36 hours at PennApps, Hack the North, and Hack Western, I have met many amazing and talented people with insane aspirations. I have also come to learn that Android Studio is the worst, that Ruby doesn't like Windows, and that Python enjoys giving people temper tantrums. If it weren't for MLH Hackathons, I would have never imagined beginning to even touch maching learning algorithms, I would have never learnt about the god that is Firebase, and I would have most definitely never known that I could survive on 1 hour of sleep in 36 hours without Redbull.
In The Loop, winner of Hack Western 2's Best Life Hack
The Rosy Conclusion
Hack for the sake of hacking. We, the community of Hackathon Hackers, stand for so much more than prizes. Don't get me wrong, if you won a hackathon prize congratulations are in order. You made something amazing enough to wow the judges, and you most definitely deserve your prize. If you aren't a winner however, you really still are a winner. In 36 hours you had fun (hopefully), you yelled countless profanities at your laptop, but most importantly you got to be part of an amazing community of people. Lots of groups out there aspire to change the world, Hackathon Hackers have changed the world. We represent the next generation in creative and productive changemakers, and the fact you didn't win that Dell Tablet doesn't change that.
Don't get me wrong, if you won a hackathon prize congratulations are in order. You made something amazing enough to wow the judges, and you most definitely deserve your prize. If you aren't a winner however, you really still are a winner.
Take advantage of the networking, the opporunities to dabble, and get inspired while inspiring others yourself. New hackers especially: do not get discouraged by not winning. Keep on learning, keep on dreaming, and keep on hacking. Shia Labeouf said "Don't let your dreams be dreams"; we are the embodiment of that.