5 things I learned at AngelHack

If you’ve never been to a hackathon, you should give it a shot — at least for a couple of hours.  This weekend a few hundred developers converged in both Boston and San Francisco to vie for prizes, peer recognition, and even venture funding, at AngelHack. They started coding at noon on Saturday and finished 30 hours later. I was there for about 10 of those hours. Here’s what I came away with.

1: The social aspect is big

Many participants, and they varied from undergrads to folks in their 40s and 50s, came to see what others are up to, and to network.

Marsh Sutherland, CEO and co-founder of Referral Bonus, loves hackathons because, he said, they make his “brain tingle and adrenaline pump,” and he bonds with new friends. And, he said, “I help create something I’m proud of.”

Andres Douglas, a Boston-based developer who has participated in Facebook hackathons, Music Hack Day and TechCrunch Disrupt events, agreed that it’s all about the people. “It’s great getting to work with new people. It’s kind of like dating. We came with two [team members] and added two here,” he said.

Aaron Roth, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, said he loves the enforced focus of the event.  “You’re working with a team to create something new and great, in a short period of time, and work continuously through the night,” he said.

2: Don’t underestimate the thrill of adventure

There is huge appeal in trying out new things.  “If you’re a developer, this may mean learning a new language, using a new set of APIs or building a product that’s different from your ‘day-job,'” said Jeffrey Peden, founder and CEO of CraveLabs, a Cambridge,Mass.-based maker of social network marketing tools. The same motivation holds with marketers and sales people, he said. They all want to try something new.

Cheryl Tom, whose day job is as a Montreal-based director of front-end development for, said she welcomes the opportunity to hone her skillset and add new expertise. This weekend she learned Facebook and Twilio APIs.

3: They’re great talent pools

Several attendees that are already in established businesses use hackathons to check out prospective programmers and developers. Said Peden: “There is no better way to evaluate folks than to see how they go through a 30-hour, start-to-finish marathon of trying to build something — and it’s not something you can just show up at the end to discover.”

Several attendees said they’d received feelers from prospective employers.

4: They’re addictive

Nearly every AngelHack attendee seemed to be a hackathon veteran.  Sutherland has participated in several Boston Startup Weekends and is helping to build a similar event in Spokane, Wash.

Patrick Leahy, a business student at Penn’s Wharton School, may be an extreme example. On January 13, he was in the 48-hour PennApps 2012 hackathon. On February 27 it was the 72-hour paid hackathon for Wharton MBAs. This weekend was AngelHack. And Tuesday he’ll be aboard the StartupBus Boston for a 73-hour traveling hackathon to South by Southwest.

5: People like prizes

For all the talk of camaraderie and collaboration, free pizza, Red Bull and beer — there are also prizes. Teams get cash money for the best use of APIs from sponsors — Microsoft Bing(s msft), Box, Viximo, Twilio — and others.  There’s a free Geeks on a Plane trip. And tickets to the upcoming GigaOM Structure:Data conference.

Asked if the prizes mattered, Penn’s Roth said: “Oh, yeah. Big time.”