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Rice expert: Why tech companies should sponsor hackathons

Temporary gatherings — like conferences and hackathons — are essential to attracting third-party developers. Photo via Getty Images

Companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Apple depend on third-party developers to create applications that improve the user experience on their platforms. However, given the many options available, developers face a daunting task in deciding which platform to focus their efforts on.

“Developers are faced with imperfect information,” says Rice Business assistant professor Tommy Pan Fang. “They don’t have an overview of the entire technology landscape.”

A team of researchers, consisting of Fang, Andy Wu (Harvard University) and David Clough (University of British Columbia), set out to investigate how temporary gatherings like “hackathons” — in-person software development competitions — might influence a developer’s choice of software platform.

Hackathons like Rice University’s annual HackRice draw developers looking to pick up new skills and create applications with teammates. Many of these events are sponsored by software platform companies.

The research team conjectured that hackathon attendees are more likely to adopt a particular platform if any of the following conditions are true:

  • A high number of fellow attendees have already embraced it.
  • A fellow attendee has built an award-winning hackathon project on it.
  • The platform that sponsors the hackathon is already popular.

To test their theories, the researchers followed 1,302 software developers participating in 167 hackathons from January 2014 to May 2017. Twenty-nine different platforms sponsored the hackathons. Fang and his colleagues tracked developers’ platform choices before and after the in-person events.

The researchers found that temporary gatherings — like hackathons, conferences and trade fairs — make a difference.

Developers with greater technical expertise were more likely to use a platform widely embraced by fellow hackathon attendees. And with every 10% increase in the number of hackathon attendees already using a given platform, other attendees were 1.2% more likely to try out that platform themselves the following year.

They also found that platforms benefit from sponsoring temporary gatherings, like hackathons.

Developers who attended a hackathon sponsored by a particular platform were 20.4% more likely to adopt that platform in the following year, compared to developers who either did not attend any hackathon or attended one without a sponsor.

Part of the reason for the findings is that developers at hackathons exert social influence on each other, both during organized hackathon events like competitions and workshops, as well as informal ones including ping pong tournaments or nights playing video games.

“The social interaction and seeing their peers be successful with the tools and what’s fashionable impacts the tools they decide to adopt,” says Fang. “For developers trying to figure out what technology to adopt in a world with imperfect information and uncertainty, having a gathering can be a beacon.”

Interviews with hackathon organizers, sponsors and developers in the U.S. and Canada backed up the researchers’ findings. Interviewees shared how they learned from their interactions with fellow developers during hackathons.

“When I’m walking around, it becomes noticeable what technologies people are using,” said a veteran of 15 hackathons. Another noted that if more people use a certain application programming interface, “it’s lower risk because it will be usable.” They added, “Most people just follow others.”

The study has implications for both developers and software platform companies alike. Results suggest hackathons can be a valuable venue for developers, not only to pick up new skills, but also to help them identify which platforms to use in the first place. For software companies, the lesson is simple: Sponsoring hackathons can be good for business.

Future research could look at how other types of events like conferences, tournaments and world’s fairs might impact how people end up adopting technologies, especially emerging ones, Fang says. For example, a company like OpenAI could use these types of in-person events to garner support and build momentum for its products.

“Companies that may have taken a step back during Covid should reevaluate in-person events to get people excited and regain momentum for their platforms,” Fang says. “The take-home message is, go out there and sponsor these events.”

This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. For more, see Fang, et al. “Platform diffusion at temporary gatherings: Social coordination and ecosystem emergence.” Strategic Management Journal 42.2 (2021): 233-272. https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.3230.

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