The good kind of hacking is where code-writers and other technology-makers come together to solve problems through creative creation.
The best known examples of this benevolent hacking are probably hack-a-thons which used to be loosely structured, intensely focused get-togethers organized by schools, community groups, even businesses. They used to be defined by their quirky culture, inaccessible as they were mystic and mysterious – things happened there but few outsiders could really be sure what happened, why, or why it mattered. They used to be.
Hacking has grown up, found standards, gone corporate.
Mike Swift, who goes by Swift, founded Major League Hacking (MLH) nearly seven years ago to provide support and structure to the hacking community and the events it created and fueled. That quest is not new, nor is attention to it. Swift and his partner Jonathan Gottfried were named to the prestigious Forbes 30 under 30 list in education in 2017.
What is new is the quiet success they’ve amassed and the impact they’ve had on the hacking enterprise.
That was not the plan from the start, though. “I wanted to be a lawyer,” Swift said. “I got a technology job to pay the bills and a friend brought me to a hack-a-thon where I had the best experience of my life.”
Two years ago, Forbes said the Swift/Gottfried venture was a “student hackathon league” that featured some 200 annual events and brought together more than 65,000 students in weekend competitions. Today, MLH has broken out of its student lane, features more than 2,000 annual events across its platforms, welcomes more than 100,000 participants a year and is expanding into the Asia/Pacific region.
That’s steady growth, enviable by any business. But the MLH impact is deeper than numbers, good as they may be. MLH has systematized, quantified, standardized hacking and made it an identifiable link in the career chain.
Before MLH, Swift said, there were thousands of hack-a-thons, which he described as “really tribal” in that they had no standards of conduct, no shared or stated values and no, as Swift describes, “connective tissue.”
MLH has set best practices, created standards for transparent judging of projects, written a code of conduct and values that include diversity and inclusion. They have erected standards around safety and security at overnight events. They send their own staff to the events, require that all of them include hardware as well as software tracks and that all the events are free.
“Before MLH, the various events may or may not have had a code of conduct and policies on security and even if they did, the organizers often were not experienced at handing or enforcing them,” Swift said. “But now we can do that for them so they can focus on what they do best, which is build great, fun, and rewarding learning experiences.”
That sort of standardization is essential for a community or business to prosper – and especially a business built around community. If you go see a baseball game in a stadium in a different town, for example, you should expect to see the game played on the same field with same rules. The scenery may be different, but the game has to be consistent.
Significantly, the standardization has allowed MLH to bring big corporate names to hacking.
“We are revenue partners with companies interested in reaching this important audience, sharing their technology or recruiting,” Swift said. “By partnering with these companies, we can bring the products that can create a great experience as well as connect people with jobs or internships they would not have known about otherwise.”
Google Cloud, for example, sponsors every MLH event, according to Swift. The Microsoft logo is on the MLH webpage about their Pacific Rim ambitions. Capital One, Swift says, is using MLH to hire tech talent at scale. “All the clients, Google, Amazon, Github – they know how important reaching this audience is,” he said.
Just a very few years ago, the idea that hack-a-thons could be an actual talent pipeline, a place big companies would go to find talent, was a pipedream. Many people could see that was possible, it just felt deeply impractical. Someone had to wrangle hacking, give it a direction and a measuring stick, make it something big companies could embrace. In that way, maybe something like MLH was inevitable, there was just too much talent, too much potential to not order it, monetize it.
But it would be a mistake to assume anyone could have done it. “We are built by hackers for hackers and have the trust of our community,” Swift said. “In an environment that is highly sensitive to authenticity, that matters.”
It probably does. Growing up while retaining your cred is a tough trick, a narrow needle to thread. That MLH has pulled it off is no small accomplishment, and with major league consequence.