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I'm a new developer at a tech startup (I've been there a few months) and the time has come for the regular internal company hackathon. This is a 48hr window where developers work to build ostensibly "whatever they like" within the parameters of the business' needs. They are touted as a fun experience and great camaraderie.

I've decided however that I'd rather not go. For one thing, I don't see doing all-nighters and overtime as a perk, but more importantly in the past I've found that hackathons bring out all my worst qualities, which are exacerbated by high-stress, low-sleep environments. I don't really want to expound on what these are, but I take them fairly seriously and worry that if I attended, I might act in ways that damage my standing with my new colleagues.

But how do I bail out from a company hackathon without sounding like a wet blanket? These are team building exercises as much as anything else and I want to show that I'm a dependable and approachable member of that team. But they make me utterly miserable and I don't really want to be the person I become under stress.

What's a simple, honest, but firm way to state that I don't want to take part in this hackathon - even for the daytime? It is not mandatory but I think it would make small waves if someone appeared to boycott it.

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    Have other coworkers opted-out in the past? If you find that out, and ask them how they opted out you could get some relevant feedback besides the answers you get here... if no one has ever opted-out... well, that is also something to consider. – DarkCygnus May 7 at 0:06
  • Also, is there some sort of registration process for the hackathon? All of the ones I have participated have one, and just not registering would be a way to opt out smoothly – DarkCygnus May 7 at 0:07
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    What are the IP requirements? Are you required to work overtime for this in either an official, or "strongly suggested" capacity? Will your performance here be used to rate your general performance? If one or more of these things are true, it's "optional". A corporate hackathon that is "optional" is just an attempt by a corporation to grab excess value from their employees along with significant unpaid overtime exploring new potentially profitable ideas. – Malisbad May 7 at 22:40
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    @Malisbad I think all Hackathons aim to grab excess value from talented programmers for free... :0) – DarkCygnus May 7 at 22:49
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    @DarkCygnus I mean, a lot of them do, but when that contribution is to open source projects and/or the creators retain exclusive IP rights to it, it is likely a lot more ethical. – Malisbad May 7 at 23:25
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What's a simple, honest, but firm way to state that I don't want to take part in this hackathon - even for the daytime?

Sometimes simple, clear statements can go a long way. No need to give detailed explanations, a simple "I do not want to participate in this year's Hackathon" should do the trick.

If someone asks (which they shouldn't, as it's not their business) you could explain to them the reasons you exposed here, and that such events make you uncomfortable and physically unwell.

Alternatively, as this is an optional Hackathon, there must surely be some sort of registration process. Not filling this form or process would be another way to opt-out, without having to give explanations or excuse yourself.

You could also consider probing around with your coworkers to see if someone has opted-out in the past, and ask for their feedback on how they did such thing or if it harmed them in any way.

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    Is there something truly taboo about asking how someone is feeling about an upcoming event? To organizers, it could be valuable input to improve accommodations in the future. – lucasgcb May 7 at 7:51
  • I upvoted, but I think there should be emphasis on how "you COULD explain". Another thing you could say if they ask is repeating "I don't want to" or "I don't feel like it" or "I'm not available". You don't owe them an explanation for this optional event. – zarose May 7 at 17:10
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    @Malisbad is that comment directed towards the question's OP? If that is so, you may consider posting it under the question instead, as that OP will not be notified by posting it here... – DarkCygnus May 7 at 22:37
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    If the company has gone as far as actually organizing this hackathon, especially as a team building exercise, they probably care about people coming to it. Expecting it to be enough to just say you don't want to go is ridiculously naive, they will just take it as an invitation to try to change your mind. – SquiddleXO May 8 at 3:52
  • @SquiddleXO fair point, but the company made it an optional event. If they wanted they could have done it mandatory – DarkCygnus May 8 at 15:00
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At my company we have something similar but it runs over a week. There are a lot of different behavior patterns:

  • Planning months in advance and working long hours every day
  • Spending regular hours on a project
  • Using the time to catch up on documentation or something related to their "day job" that might not be part of the regular backlog
  • Prototyping something small in a new language or technology they're interested in
  • Working on their "day job" like every other day (though without the benefit of the rest of their team and QA etc.)

Any and all of these are acceptable in our business culture in any combination, ymmv. If none but the last appeal to you, I'd just wait until a few days before the hackathon and mention to your boss that you prefer your normal routine and just want to catch up on some tickets. If he asks, just be honest that you don't enjoy the environment; everyone is different and a reasonable person will be cognizant and allow you flexibility. You might get a raised eyebrow or two from a coworker, but I doubt anyone will judge you too hard for opting out.

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    This combines well with other answers - "sorry Boss, I can't do the hackathon because X, but can I help out by covering business as usual while the rest of you work on this? What needs doing?" It's easier to say no when you have an alternative to offer. – Geoffrey Brent May 7 at 0:35
  • While I like this answer, it might not work if the hackathon is planned over the weekend (where the regular routine is "not being in office"). – Erik May 8 at 6:59
  • I suspect he would have mentioned if that were the case, but you're right. In that case however it's much more reasonable to say, "No, I have weekend plans." (Never mind that your weekend plans are to watch Netflix.) – Sigma May 9 at 10:36
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Answer: You can just say "No."

Background: Yes I participated once at my company's hackathon. It was fairly large scale and involves a local university. So it sounded fun. I instantly regretted it the first hour I came in. It took a lot of self discipline to not just get up and leave or have a fake medical issue. Some folks actually stayed into Saturday morning. I actually left at around 12:30am the Saturday but worked all day so in reality I stayed in the office for nearly 16 hours and came back that Saturday morning and worked for nearly 8 more hours. We actually "won" second place with a panel of judges (who were our managers) and we got some cool gadgets. The managers did not stay around before, during, or after. They just came in for an hour to judge then left promptly. So I can't complain too much about it in the end.

The following year the planner of the event (a person in PR) wanted me to come back to it. She actually sounded sincere and wanted me to be in it since I was at it last year. I simply said, "NO" and she stopped asking entirely. The following year and the years after that I didn't even need to say no as they never asked nor did I shown any interest.

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Don’t provide an explanation.

This seems like one of those things that separates “team members” from “employees.” Some people love to soak up the company culture, spend time with coworkers outside of work, and attend lots of events. Others prefer to keep their heads down, get their work done, and leave. There’s nothing wrong with being in the latter category, as long as you actually do get work done.

When you took the job, you didn’t agree to pull all-nighters and endure crazy amounts of pressure to win some competition. Some people find this exciting or enjoyable but you’re obviously not one of them and I think your managers should be able understand that without you having to explain.

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I would suggest just doing it, bite the bullet, tighten your belt and bond with your team.

I have opted out of things like this in the past and regretted missing the experience and even though people might not say it they will notice that you weren't there. It is 2 days out of the year where you get to work on what ever you want.

I sense a little bit of anxiety that, in my opinion, will only be cured by tackling it head on, I hope that helps.

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