Salesforce Backtracks, Awards Second $1M Prize In Its Hackathon Scandal

Salesforce offered the biggest payday for a hackathon winner at its Dreamforce conference in November—a $1 million bounty it claimed was the largest such single prize in history. Now it's just backtracked and offered the very same prize to the second-place winner as well, in a bid to quell accusations that the hackathon was rigged and that the winners cheated. 

Salesforce performed an internal audit of how the Dreamforce hackathon was judged to determine if there was any foul play or if the winners—an app called Upshot—broke the rules. In the end, Salesforce says that UpShot definitely didn’t break the rules, but that it hadn't made the final-round judges fully aware of the contest requirements.

So Salesforce is now awarding two developer teams with the $1 million prize. UpShot gets to keep its bounty and Salesforce will award a second prize to an app called Healthcare.love.

Adam Seligman, VP of developer and partner marketing at Salesforce, wrote an extensive blog post on Salesforce’s website outlining the audit of the hackathon and defending the selection of UpShot while also awarding Healthcare.love.

The internal review found that the winning team, Upshot, met the hackathon’s eligibility requirements, and that the app they submitted adhered to the rules of the hackathon.  It also found that we weren’t clear enough with the final round judges about the use of pre-existing code.
So here’s what we’re going to do: we are declaring a tie and we are awarding each of the top two developer teams with the grand prize of $1 million.  Both Upshot and Healthcare.love built incredible apps on the Salesforce1 Platform and both deserve to be recognized.

Up All Night, Not Even A Kiss Farewell

Hackathons tend to be all day, all night events—sometimes spanning multiple days and nights—where developers attempt to build the best app they can within time constraints. Usually, hackathons are held by some type of company or organization looking to promote good developer relations or to encourage the creation of apps for its platform.

In the case of the Salesforce hackathon, developers needed to build their apps on top of its mobile platform while using very little pre-existing code that was not created before the event. 

This is where UpShot got into trouble. Dreamforce was held November 18-21 in San Francisco. UpShot was showing off its app in early October, well before the hackathon. The company’s founder, Thomas Kim, was also employed as an engineer at Salesforce for about nine years before leaving to found UpShot. 

Sounds fishy, right? Other hackathon competitors almost immediately complained. 

Unlike most hackathons, there was no demonstration period at the end where competitors could show off their wares. Contestants submitted video of the app and its code to judges, but other contestants couldn’t see who the finalists were. Writing on blog network Medium, Alicia Liu of LiftApp said that it didn’t even look like her team’s submission was even opened by judges:

The next morning I saw a bland standard rejection email, which was sent just past 3am that night, specifically stating no judging feedback will be given. I quickly checked Testflight and our app data to see if it had been run. While Salesforce does say not all apps will be run, I thought we would at least pass the video stage and have someone actually check out our app, but the Testflight email with our build wasn’t even opened. (Not having your app run later turned out to be a wide-spread phenomenon, and some reported that their video was never even watched. We can’t tell if our video was viewed by judges or not.)

Did UpShot Cheat?

The charge against Kim and the UpShot team was that the team had already built and demonstrated the product before the hackathon, and thus used previously written code. Kim's previous employment with Salesforce made matters worse. Critics accused UpShot, whose app allows users to create automated reports on the Salesforce platform, of entering the contest just so it could repurpose its website to fit on a mobile screen.

Healthcare.love didn't have completely clean hands, either. Salesforce owns a minority stake in the company. The audit found that Healthcare.love was eligible for the prize because Salesforce's investment is relatively small, and thus that Salesforce has no influence over the actions of Healthcare.love. 

Former Salesforce employees were prohibited from the hackathon if they had been with the company after September 1, 2013. Kim absconded from Salesforce the year before and was thus technically eligible.

Yet in his post on the hackathon audit, Seligman stated that judges in the first two rounds of elimination were Salesforce employees, while the third and final round had six judges, five of which were independent of Salesforce. While Seligman points out that the finalists were mostly independent, it is little wonder that an app from a former colleague got past the first two rounds of Salesforce-employed judges.

Regrets ... And Cash

While Seligman ultimately defended the selection of UpShot and the addition of Healthcare.love as the winners of the hackathon, he expressed some regret over how the event played out. For instance, Liu says that her team was given no feedback or any information as to why their app was rejected. Seligman says that was a mistake as was the lack of live demos at the hackathon and private judging.

Most hackathons include live demos for judges, but we didn’t. This was a mistake. The net of this is we didn’t give every team the experience they deserved.  We didn’t let them demo their work live, and they didn’t get feedback from peers and judges.
The gallery was closed and the judging was conducted in private, so participants didn’t know why they didn’t advance to the finals.

Salesforce has now made the gallery of 150 app entries public here

In the end, Salesforce did what many large corporations do when they are caught being sloppy or sleazy: perform an audit, tell everybody that everything was OK, admit to as little as possible and throw a lot of money at the problem.