SAN JOSE —
"There are just four important things you need for a hackathon: food, wifi, power and people," said hackathon aficionado Mike Swift. "When you have those, people want to build together."
Swift went to his first hackathon in 2010. At an event a few months later, he and his friends created Hacker League, a program that helps organizers coordinate their events online. "Since then hackathons have totally exploded," he said. In December, Intel purchased Hacker League for an undisclosed amount.
Another well-known hackathon success story is GroupMe, a free online chat program inspired by a project conceived during a New York competition in 2010 and acquired by Skype in a reported $85 million deal.
But as these think sessions have grown from dorm room all-nighters to high-stakes events, problems have arisen.
In December, San Francisco-based Salesforce.com took heavy criticism from participants after it awarded a $1 million hackathon prize — the largest such reward to date — to a former employee who had used pre-existing code during the competition.
After reviewing the rules and judging process, the firm decided that though the prize winners didn't violate rules, they were going to choose a second team to also win the $1 million grand prize and declared the competition a tie.
"We heard feedback loud and clear," wrote Salesforce vice president Adam Seligman in a note to participants. "We didn't get this right. We should have been clearer."
Still, Seligman said the company intends hold more hackathons, using an outside firm to execute them. He said, "We want you to make awesome stuff and make money."