The Healthy Hackathon: Rebalancing the Silicon Valley Startup Culture Myths

Not the fuel you are looking for

As I have taken a look at the balance in my own life, I have started to see the lack of balance in some of the systems that I live within.

Back in the day I was on a quest to know everything I could about technology. At different times the technology differed, but the personification of the obsession was in my era of Ajaxian-in-Chief.

I was on top of every point release from jQuery, Prototype, Dojo, GWT, you name it. Did this help me build great software? While it was good to have some knowledge of the landscape, and it allowed me the freedom to go deep on the browser platform, I can safely say that I was too deep.

Over time I have tried to live in more levels of abstraction. I still want to deeply understand technology, but I also want to understand what users are going through and what products could help them. I even want to understand domains and what is important to the business (but more the user to be honest 😉

Startup Intensity

I felt that I got diminishing returns on my investment, and lost the benefits from thinking about broader impact and possibilities. I shake my head when I think of decisions where I rewrote a system moving from A to B and not delivering value to the user. Sometimes you need to rewrite, but too often I found myself in class second system syndrome.

This leads me to the main topic of this note. There is a feeling that really hurts us with startups and in Silicon Valley.

That feeling is that:

“For your startup to succeed you need to focus 100% of your time on it, you need to eschew other concerns, and you should code all night!”

The personification of this, in a show such as Silicon Valley, is that of the bleary eyed engineer with Mountain Dew cans thrown across his desk.

What goes unsaid here is that if you aren’t doing this, you are lesser for it. Your startup won’t succeed, or you won’t be able to compete with other engineers.

We are learning that we need sleep. We can’t be creative 20 hours a day without it. We also need exercise. We need diversity. We need to feed our bodies good nutrition to optimize our health.

If we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to be at our peak for the longest time possible, we will make poor decisions. One poor decision could be the make or break of a startup. Lots of smaller poor decisions could also mean that the opportunity isn’t met.

It is time to take back this myth and realize the false idols.

The Healthy Hackathon

I was joking with Brad Neuberg about the notion of a “healthy hackathon”. The epitome of the 24/7 hacker culture is the hackathon. A marathon of hacking!

What if we tried something new? What if instead of a weekend of sleeping at your computer screen rushing a project to life for a competition, we gave ourselves the time to try something different.

We come together and experience the balance. Imagine a couple of days where you awaken after a nice sleep and have choices such as:

  • guided meditation
  • outdoor walks in nature
  • hammocks
  • yoga
  • various exercise options (HIIT, running, etc)
  • play (sports, games)
  • great healthy food (including learning how to cook it)

It is all interweaved into the day of making software product.

How would that feel? Would we feel like we are “wasting time”? Would we connect more? What would we talk about while hiking around? How would our ideas surface?

There is nothing wrong with the hackathon. A period of intense focus now and then can work, and your body and mind can probably deal with it with enough downtime before or after. In fact, getting into a routine of mini-sprints with appropriate recovery could be ideal!

I also know the importance of timing. You could get lucky and build something at a hackathon right after a new product launches.

However in general I am looking to optimize my performance over the long run. And to do that I need balance. I am not looking to sprint to retirement, I want to be creating and expanding my knowledge and output for as long as I have got. I guess I want to be the turtle… and a happy turtle at that.

Is the West coast getting to me? It this too “hippy”? Is it worth a try?

NOTE: This certainly isn’t tied to just startups or silicon valley. Much of corporate america and the world suffers. I also know that this wouldn’t be new. I have been to various FooCamp type experiences, and I see them growing against the standard “conference”. And look, Khan Academy has already been doing this for years!

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