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Hackathons: The Competitive Nerve Centers Driving Collaborative Innovation

David Tanacea

Vice President, Head of Technology Consulting, EPAM US

It all started with the promise of a free drink to whomever could write the perfect bubble sort first. Even after a 10-hour day of coding, the enticing offer caused the coders to scramble for a pen and a napkin, and furiously jot down the algorithm. At the end of the day, what influenced them to work such long hours? Coders love to code. Then came the JavaOne conference in 1999, where Sun Microsystems’ John Gage devised a competition to write an application for the Palm V infrared port.

And the trend only continued to gain momentum… What started as a fun exercise in 90s has exploded into what we now know as the hackathon movement. Now, hackathons are being staged for everything from programming languages to specific APIs. 

Enter TopCoder, the crowdsourcing technology company that we founded on the concept of competition as a means to inspire a large community of more than a million technologists. In addition to producing high-quality deliverables, the TopCoder platform has generated a gold mine of data on the inner-workings of incentivized competition.

Now that hackathons are finally hitting the engineering culture mainstream, the data that TopCoder gathered and analyzed shed valuable insight on the intersection between competition and collaboration.

While TopCoder found that the initial motivator for their engineering community was money, they also discovered tremendous collaborative efforts and the desire to improve among coders in the midst of competition. In fact, competitors stated that the opportunity to continuously learn from better engineers pushed them to stick around.

The data were even referenced by institutions, like Harvard Business School, researching this anomaly:

Competition Collaboration
  1. Innovation problem requires diversity of approaches
  2. Contributors tend to be substitutes
  3. Arms-length, rules based contacts
  4. External innovators are competitive
  5. Driven by extrinsic motivations and profits
  1. Innovation problem requires cumulative knowledge building
  2. Contributors range from mix&match to co-production
  3. Informal, norms-based governance
  4. External innovators are cooperative
  5. Driven by intrinsic and extrinsic motivations


As hackathons continue growing in popularity, it’s important to consider trends that will further impact their culture. One that is bound to make waves is the rise of cloud native application development. Developers will be able to build 12 factor applications, allowing these applications to run on any cloud based infrastructure (public or private).

This provides a continuous integration environment where the application can constantly evolve to improve. We must cultivate this trend and continue using hackathons as vessels of innovation that add immediate business value. 

At EPAM, engineering is in our DNA and our collaborative nature runs deep. We host hackathons for a myriad of reasons. Whether it’s to inspire kids to learn code or to bring innovative solutions to our customers, the results are always fun and often impressive. 

How far we have come from the napkin…

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