Opinion

Fix HackMIT

Event should be adjusted to encourage healthy lifestyle

Last Friday, an email from student leaders and administrators asked us to participate in “conversation about our community,” with emphasis on the wellbeing of students. This Saturday, HackMIT begins: a 24-hour hackathon where students gather to build, create, and completely abandon any sense of a healthy lifestyle.

Hackathons are notorious for pumping participants full of caffeine and junk food in order to keep them working on their projects straight through the night. Sleep deprivation, poor diet, and complete ignorance of long-term responsibilities form a disastrous combination. So why is TechX offering it to us?

I don’t mean to imply that hackathons, poor diet, sleep deprivation, or any particular cause is directly responsible for the tragic losses our community has endured over the last few months. In fact, hackathons are a great way to build community, make cool stuff, and learn a ton. But scheduling a 24-hour hackathon in the middle of the semester on a normal two-day weekend is inconsistent with the messages students have received regarding mental health. While nobody has to go to the hackathon, it’s a pretty lucrative opportunity that’s hard to pass up: free food/swag, company connections, prizes, plus guaranteed admission for any MIT student.

Furthermore, HackMIT encourages an extreme culture that shuns moderation, rest, and other healthy habits. We can work for 24 hours straight. We can build amazing technology overnight. We are hardcore. We love our resumes more than our bodies. The fire hose is always going.

This is not sustainable.

Future HackMITs should be held exclusively over long weekends or student breaks, and the competition period should be shortened (or lengthened) to allow for a reasonable sleep pattern. Instead of perpetuating a culture that contributes to the problem, by making these changes, TechX and other hackathon organizers can be part of the solution.

Brittney Johnson is a member of the Class of 2016

6 Comments
1
Ankush Gupta over 3 years ago

HackMIT is not about unhealthy competition or finding out who can consume the most caffeine. It's designed to bring together people from around the world, of all skill levels and backgrounds, in a high-energy, collaborative environment. We provide free food that's healthier than what most students eat on campus: fresh fruit, Flour -- hell I barely ever eat breakfast and we have a full-out brunch. We have dedicated workshops and activities for newcomers and beginners. Many students leave campus for long weekends, so we chose to minimize conflicts and provide the opportunity to as many students as possible. An event like HackMIT causes students to shun no more responsibility than an event like the Head of the Charles. Going to HackMIT and getting free food, swag, connections, and prizes doesn't necessitate not sleeping: we provide every hacker with a place to sleep, and we have plenty of activities to help them mingle, unwind and destress.

Every hackathon is different and we've done our best to make HackMIT an educational, inclusive and healthy experience, but I urge you to find out for yourself. HackMIT may or may not be for you, but if your schedule allows it, at least try it out. Don't feel pressured to stay the whole time if you don't want to. If you like it, great, have an awesome time and hopefully you'll have fun and learn something new. If not, let us know what you'd want changed -- we're always doing our best to make improvements.

2
Matt Putnam '09 over 3 years ago

I wholeheartedly agree with this article. One of the biggest problems with MIT culture is how people feel pressured into overloading themselves. Too many subcommunities have this pervasive attitude that if you're not doing so many activities and taking so many classes that you're pushing yourself to your physical and mental limit, that you're Not Doing It Right and are lame and not hardcore enough and that this is shameful.

Ankush -- the problem isn't with requirements, it's with the implicit underlying expectations. You don't _have_ to not sleep, but you're expected not to, partly by the culture and partly by the design of the event itself. The challenges presented are ones that are unrealistic to complete within the timeframe, so your only real choice is to forgo sleep (or you're just that badass that you can hack through it in a few hours, but we're not talking about you).

3
Matthew Dierker over 3 years ago

I'm a senior in CS at UIUC. I used to lead the team running HackIllinois, a 36-hour student run hackathon like HackMIT.

First, let's get some things out of the way. No one is forcing you to attend a hackathon. If you feel that it prioritizes unhealthy habits, you don't have to come.

Secondly: In the past few years I have attended more hackathons than I can count on my fingers, and I have slept at every single one. I have never experienced anyone making fun of me for doing so, and I am much more productive with a few hours of sleep.

The 24 hours of a hackathon are about powering through and creating something from start to finish. Hackathons are valuable to learn prototyping skills - to learn how to write "bad" code that compromises speed over quality. This summer at Dropbox part of my job was to prototype my feature and make any compromises necessary to make it work. Participants can also build personal relationships with engineering mentors. As an example, HackMIT 2013 directly led to a summer internship offer from a sponsor.

It's clearly not a sustainable event, but it doesn't have to be. It's a once a year. In that annual 24 hours, participants learn to prototype, they have fun with a coding project, they get to be creative, encounter problems to overcome, and have an entire uninterrupted day to build while their lives are taken care of with food, drinks, fun, and swag. You can't say that about a class. For many, it's worth throwing off your sleep schedule 1 out of 52 weekends a year.

4
Chris over 3 years ago

Secondly: In the past few years I have attended more hackathons than I can count on my fingers, and I have slept at every single one. I have never experienced anyone making fun of me for doing so, and I am much more productive with a few hours of sleep.

It's clearly not a sustainable event, but it doesn't have to be. It's a once a year. In that annual 24 hours...

So, is it once a year, or is it nearly every weekend?

5
Matthew Dierker over 3 years ago

I generally choose to attend 2 or 3 hackathons a semester, including plenty not at my school. I am suggesting that one annual event held at MIT (or a community holding many of these events worldwide each semester) doesn't lead to "complete ignorance of long-term responsibilities". If I choose to attend more than one event it's because for me the benefits far outweigh losing some sleep.

6
Matt Putnam '09 over 3 years ago

"I have slept at every single one" / "for me the benefits far outweigh losing some sleep"

So do you sleep, or not?

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"No one is forcing you to attend a hackathon. If you feel that it prioritizes unhealthy habits, you don't have to come."

At MIT you do, if you don't want to be judged for not being hardcore enough and justifying your admission. You try to appeal to your personal experience, but you're not at MIT. I was not-so-subtlely scorned on multiple occasions for not attending a hackathon, when I was unable to attend due to a busy schedule.

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As I said in my earlier comment, a regrettable part of MIT's culture is how people feel pressured into overexerting themselves. The problem is with this culture, but hackathons serve to concentrate and amplify it, by way of the aforementioned implicit expectations. Allow me to explain via analogy.

There's another crazy 24-hour experience at MIT--the Shakespeare Ensemble does an event where they write, design, and rehearse a play in 24 hours (they get a prompt, and 24 hours later, the performance starts). It's similarly crazy, but the big difference is that the expectations are low and there are absolutely no stakes. Nobody thinks they're creating a masterpiece, it's not a competition, there's no prize money, nobody's summer internship is riding on it, the participants aren't put on a pedestal, and nobody scorns you for not being hardk0re enough if you don't participate.

Conversely, the projects at these hackathons are blown way out of proportion. Most of the entries are really not that impressive, yet the impression that you get from the organizers' carnival barking is that they're mind-blowing innovations and the participants are out to change the world. The prize money and promises of internships from the loads of high-profile sponsors only support this.

You want suggestions for improvement? If hackathons were run with the same kind of low-key, low-profile irreverence as the Shakespeare Ensemble's thing, they would be a ton healthier for everyone. Pick a theme that's reasonable to accomplish in the timeframe, rather than the implicit theme of "make something mind-blowing to impress the sponsors and win money/an internship". Get rid of the prizes. The various game jams are a great template.

Look at Battlecode. It challenges teams to reinvent the wheel in a month. HackMIT challenges teams to save the world in day. One of these is reasonable, the other isn't.