Why Your Impression of a Hackathon is Wrong - You Are Missing Out
7 min read
Addressing the Misconceptions
If you don’t actually know what a hackathon is you are probably imagining the scene from Social Network where Facebook hirees are challenged to a race to hack into a server. The scene takes place in a tightly packed room with a cheering audience and shots being forced down their throats.
While I am unsure if this Facebook story is true, I can assure you that hackathons are nothing like this. The atmosphere is not of the high stake and competitive nature that Social Network portrays but rather an innovative, collaborative and fun environment.
People hear the word “hackathon” and assume that some nefarious criminal activity is occurring. The “hack” part is not referring to the literal definition. It’s supposed to be a play on words hack and marathon. In fact, one of the intentions of hackathons is to create projects in 24-48 hours that solve real world problems. Hackathons encourage projects of this nature with certain prize categories like Best Climate Hack.
- Hackathon: the event.
- Hacker: a person who attends a hackathon.
- Hack: the project a group or individual creates at a hackathon.
Lastly, people have this belief that hackathons have very high barriers for entry because you must be a talented coder. First of all, writing code is only a small part of the many elements that go into a successful project. We need entrepreneurs to provide creative ideas, designers to help with logo design and UI, and business people to help pitch the final presentation to the judges.
Also, if you do code but don't have much knowledge or want to learn, attending hackathons are a great way to gain resources and direction to learn.
Most people have a very false image of what hackathons are, but by learning about what they actually are and the benefits they provide, you will not want to pass up on them.
So what is a hackathon then?
Glad you asked. A hackathon is an invention marathon where people from around the country and possibly the globe gather in one area for a weekend. Once assembled, they form teams, share ideas and collaborate to create an original project that addresses a problem. Throughout the hacking, there are many breaks for caffeine, free food, fun games, workshops and networking with reputable companies.
You usually arrive at the hackathon on a Saturday where you check-in, meet your team or participate in team-building events to find teammates, and begin working on your project. When the hackathon is coming to a wrap on Sunday, you and your teammates demo your project to judges where you can win prizes for specific categories.
The real magic of a hackathon is the actual projects that can be built in 24 hours. One famous example is GroupMe, where the founders locked themselves in a room during a 2010 hackathon in NYC to code out their communication app idea. The amazing thing is they didn’t even win any prizes but felt so confident about their idea that they quit their full-time jobs to pursue it. This risk paid off a year later when Skype purchased GroupMe for $85 million.
The power of a community of innovators and technical people coming together for a weekend of sharing ideas and knowledge and addressing problems, creates an incredible atmosphere. Hackers are able to consult mentors, professionals in the industry or peers for advice. The abundance of resources allows for lasting connections and great learning opportunities.
Alright, so why should I attend a hackathon?
After learning about what a hackathon actually is you should be convinced but let me just give some more motivation:
- Learn industry skills: By attending an event with a community of tech innovators, you will be sure to learn about new emerging technologies that you can incorporate in your own work.
- Networking: Hackathons are great for networking because they allow you to talk to employees at top-tier companies like IBM who are passionate and have experience in your field of work unlike recruiters. It also can lead to great first impressions because you can directly showcase your skills through your project.
IBM Table at CuseHacks 2020:
- Great community: When attending a hackathon, you can easily meet like-minded individuals. It's a great place to discuss ideas and make great connections.
- Resume builder: Hackathons are very attractive on your resume because they display your passion for the industry and provide the opportunity to build a project that you can put on it.
- Free stuff: With the reasons mentioned above, you might be skeptic that a hackathon is free. However, not only is attending free, but so is the food, drinks and swag.
- They’re fun: It’s basically like having a sleepover with friends where you have the latitude to create whatever you want and spend your time however you choose whether that be actually creating a project or attending workshops and games.
I understand that even with the above reasons, that you may still be hesitant about attending a hackathon. If you have never attended one before and have no friends to accompany you, it might seem daunting to attend. However, I can assert to you that the hackathon community is very welcoming. It’s also not even required to build a project so you can attend only to make friends, learn and abuse the free stuff.
Now that you have decided you want to attend a Hackathon, you are probably now thinking about where you can find them. Well there are two awesome resources that can lead you in the right direction.
Major League Hacking (MLH):
MLH is the official student hackathon league. They help support 200 weekend long hackathons every year. You are able to find upcoming hackathons through their event page. They also provide other resources for hackers including internship and fellowship opportunities.
Devpost is basically like the social media for hackathons. You have the ability to create an account which you will use to submit your projects for hackathons. Your profile will be populated with all of the projects you submitted including any prizes that you won for specific categories.
Devpost is also a great place to find hackathons as they include more than just the MLH sponsored events and have a great search filter system for location, length and interest
Personally, I held some of the same misconceptions I addressed. However, I joined the Innovate Orange club this winter at Syracuse University that hosts CuseHacks . When helping moderate the event this year, I was able to connect with experienced industry professionals and learn about newer technologies like GANs . I only moderated, but it was still fun and beneficial to me!
My teammates and I at CuseHacks 2021:
I think the biggest thing holding back hackathons is the misconception that you need to know how to code. However, we actually need people with different specializations from backgrounds like design, business and entrepreneurship. Trust me, coders often lack the creativity for ideas or the business skills to pitch their project, so those who have these specializations would make a huge impact.
If you have never attended a hackathon before, the best advice is to go in open-minded. While some experienced hackathoners will go in with a project idea and only focus on winning a prize, don’t let those select few scare you. The real reason to attend a hackathon is to meet like minded people and learn.
If you have made it this far, please consider attending a hackathon. They are not just for students. While a lot of hackathons are hosted by Universities, there are also companies like Amazon who will host hackathons for those who are in industry. They also come in different forms like remote or extended periods of time instead of the traditional in-person weekend events.
Feel free to reach out to me on twitter if you have any questions.