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Salesforce Hackathon Fallout: Now Contest Has Two Winners

| December 3, 2013
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Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff (Don Clyde / KQED)

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff (Don Clyde / KQED)

Update, 9:45 a.m. Dec. 3: The Great Salesforce Hackathon Uproar has taken a new turn. The company says it has completed a review of its $1 million hackathon after charges of favoritism, cheating and shady judging. The result: The company says the original winning team met all the contest rules and was eligible to compete. But it has also decided to award a second $1 million prize to a team that lost out in the original judging.

Some contestants had come forward with a long list of complaints about the outcome of the hackathon, in which Salesforce awarded the cash prize to a startup called Upshot. The Upshot app allows users to create and edit new Salesforce reports on mobile devices.

Among other things, critics said the Upshot team included a former Salesforce employee, had been working on its winning app long before the hackathon began and used lots of pre-existing code in its software. Some competitors also questioned whether judges for the hackathon, put on as part of the company’s Dreamforce conference, even looked at some of the apps that had been submitted.

In a blog post yesterday, Adam Seligman, the Salesforce vice president for developer relations, said Upshot had met all requirements — that the former Salesforce employee had left the company by the deadline specified in the rules and that its app didn’t make improper use of code developed before the contest. But Seligman went on to say that Salesforce had been too vague in instructing judges about the use of pre-existing code guidelines, which he said were designed to exclude apps that had been developed for purposes other than the hackathon.

Thus, the company was declaring a tie in the contest and awarding a second $1 million to Healthcare.love. That team developed an app designed to simplify the process of choosing medical insurance under the new federal health care law.

Seligman also said the company did judge all submissions in the contest, including three submitted after the deadline (none of those apps were among the winners). But he added the contest organizers made a series of mistakes — failing to be transparent about the judging process, falling short of giving specific feedback and by not staging a public demo of all the apps.

Original post: The uproar over the Salesforce Hackathon continues to grow.

Developers have complained that the judging was biased toward a former Salesforce employee, and that the grand prize-winners cheated by using pre-existing code. Some participants say that no one looked at the work they submitted. Now the San Francisco Business Times is reporting that the second-place winners, who built an app called Healthcare.love, work for San Francisco-based Taptera — Salesforce invested $2 million into Taptera in August 2011.

On Saturday, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff tweeted:

We are doing a full review of the Salesforce1 Hackathon, & will address every issue raised by the community. http://t.co/shXgeJzvDe

— Marc Benioff (@Benioff) November 23, 2013

On Friday, Adam Seligman, Salesforce’s VP of developer marketing, issued a response to the brouhaha, saying that “Every eligible app entry was reviewed at least twice.” Regarding the use of pre-existing code, he referred to a Salesforce discussion board, where the official hackathon rule is clarified:

Reusing code you may have written before is fine, provided that you were the author of that code, it doesn’t comprise the majority of your app and its use does not violate any third party’s rights. You could modify an existing product to integrate with Salesforce and submit that, however you’d be judged on just that component, not the pre-existing product.

Alicia Liu entered the Hackathon challenge with a partner. A senior software engineer at Lift Worldwide, based in San Francisco, she was so upset about the outcome that she wrote about it. In “The Dirty Secret Behind the Salesforce $1M Hackathon,” Liu wrote that she initially dismissed the challenge as “just another marketing gimmick, like so many corporate-sponsored hackathons before it, to trick otherwise sane developers into working for free — with copious amounts of junk food and caffeine and the lure of dubious prizes — to develop apps on top of APIs and platforms they otherwise wouldn’t bother with.”

Eventually, she changed her mind, and after many long hours, she and her partner built and submitted SalesRun, an app for salespeople that automatically generates trip itineraries to visit their most valuable customers. Then, she writes:

We went by the Developer Zone at Dreamforce a half hour after the 6pm deadline to see if we could see the judging, but event staff were shutting things down and starting to kick people out! We thought that was weird, there wasn’t even anywhere to see all the submissions. At typical hackathons, this is usually the most exciting period. You get a chance to see what everyone else came up with, and hear what the judges think of the submissions, and get feedback about your app from judges and other participants.

“The judging was not out in the open,” Liu told KQED. “They did not list all submissions.”

The secret judging also grates on Seth Piezas and other developers, who say galleries with all entries are routinely posted at hackathons, allowing participants to connect and learn from each other. ChallengePost, which handled Salesforce Hackathon submissions, only shows the top five and not the reported 149 entries. There is now a move to gather together the full list of entries for the public.

‘The judging was not out in the open. They did not list all submissions.’

Piezas, in fact, think the hackathon should be barred in the future, at least as it’s currently set up. “They set expectations that they were looking for serious apps, serious work, serious time,” he says. “Don’t pull the wool over our eyes.”

Liu was also put off by the contest requirements asking for developers’ source code. “Typically, no, they don’t ask for your source code,” she told KQED. “Most hackathons are shorter — a weekend or a day, and sometimes they’ll ask to see your source code to see if you wrote it or for purposes of verification. In a normal hackathon, not one that is corporate-sponsored, you own everything. But with the big cash prizes [offered by Salesforce], we thought that was OK.”

Now, she says, “if they come up with a product that may have been based on your source code,” there’s nothing you can do about it.

Piezas says his app was never viewed by the judges, and Liu says the same about hers. “Salesforce says all the videos will be watched, but that they won’t run all apps,” Liu acknowledges. “But this hackathon was four weeks, so you would think at least a significant number would be launched.

“We were absolutely fine about not winning. But then we found out it was not a hackathon, it was a dog and pony show. I wrote about it so others won’t be falling for it, won’t be spending a lot of time on it.”

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  • Casey

    All the hackathons are rigged lately. Ask Jason Calacanis how the Launch winners spent the $1.7M in prize money.

    His fund only has $800k but due to some math error’s by Jason he gave interviews that said entrants were competing for $1.7m in prizes.

    Might also note you couldn’t participate if you were female.

  • rickrozay

    It sounds like they were working on it much longer than 4 weeks: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4844318

  • Terry A Davis

    I entered an Intel competition. I used my operating system. It does not support GPU, but does support multicore. They were not impressed.

  • Christopher Hebert

    Why don’t people just join hackathons for the pizza and drinks, and just work on their own side projects? Then you get free pizza and drinks, and some quality time to work on your side project!

    Under normal circumstances you might think this is unethical, but when you consider the behavior of the corporation sponsoring the hackathon, is it really?