Hackathons Are for You

A lot of people have heard of hackathons, but not everyone is sure that going to a hackathon is right for them.

If you’re considering attending a hackathon and are asking yourself:

  • Will I fit in at a hackathon?
  • Am I good enough at programming to go to a hackathon?
  • Are hackathons worth going to?

…then this post is for you :).

A lot of people ask themselves these questions. In fact, I’d wager that everyone who’s attended a hackathon has asked themselves at least one of these questions at some point in time.

Unfortunately, most hackathons are intimidating for first-timers. Dedicating an entire weekend to a hackathon feels like a big commitment (especially to college students), and programming has a massive learning curve, which makes it easy to feel inadequate.

I started programming the spring semester of my senior year in high school. I thought it was fun and interesting, but I wasn’t sure that it was a good fit for what I wanted to do long-term. I considered switching my major to Computer Science before starting at Purdue, but decided to stick with First-Year Engineering, thinking that I’d likely end up studying Biological Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, or Computer Engineering.

In my first few weeks of school, I attended what felt like 50 different callouts (Purdue’s term for a club’s introductory meeting where they explain what the club does and why you should join). Since I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, I decided I’d try everything— I planned to join IEEE, the genetic engineering club, a political club, the iOS development club, an underwater-robot-building club, and more.

Along the way, I met a few upperclassmen at Purdue who seemed like programming wizards. They had all built cool projects outside of class that blew me away. That semester, a few of them had decided to get together and found Purdue Hackers, which they pitched as a sort of counter-culture community of hackers and builders who liked to make cool stuff. I attended their late callout, and thought that the community sounded awesome, so I added it to my list of stuff to get involved with.

Later on, the guys who founded Purdue Hackers mentioned that I should go to MHacks. Michigan hadn’t sent a bus to Purdue at that point (and hardly anyone at Purdue had heard about MHacks or hackathons in general), so they were rallying a bunch of people to fill a bus. I asked them what it was going to be like, and they described it vaguely as a magical experience where I could build a project in 36 hours and learn more than I had during my first several weeks at Purdue. They said that I needed to go so I could be one of the people changing the world over the course of a weekend.

I was freaked out.

Their description of the event sounded awesome, but I did not feel like I belonged there. Like, shit, were they finally going to realize that I barely knew how to program and not think I was good enough? What was everyone there going to think of me while they’re building crazy stuff and I have no idea what I’m doing? Additionally, I had concerns like not being able to shower all weekend, having to sleep on the floor, and giving up an entire weekend when I was still trying to make friends at school.

I didn’t even know if I wanted to become a programmer. I had tons of other interests. But this was it, right? I was in college now — it was time to get my shit together and figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my life. So I took a leap of faith, said ‘fuck it,’ and decided to go.

Fast forward to September 20th — it’s an uncomfortably warm day, I’m sweating while lugging my suitcase down an empty sidewalk to Lawson, our Computer Science building, and I’m nervous as hell. All of the questions I had asked myself originally like ‘Am I good enough?’ and ‘Is this right for me?’ come rushing back into my head. I consider turning back and telling the guys who encouraged me to come that I got sick, but I don’t.

I’m extremely glad I didn’t. Seeing what people managed to build in 36 hours stretched the bounds of what I thought was possible, and helped me realize that even though I wasn’t a programming rockstar, I could become one, and I wanted to become one. I left MHacks knowing that I needed to switch to Computer Science. When I got back, I started doing everything I could do help other students get involved with hackathons. I would go on to direct BoilerMake, Purdue’s intercollegiate hackathon, help found Hack the Anvil, a Purdue-only hackathon, and run Purdue Hackers, the club that introduced me to the world I live in today. Attending MHacks II was a turning point in my life.

So if you’ve asked yourself any questions similar to the ones I listed at the beginning of this post, the answer is yes — you will fit in, you are good enough, and hackathons are worth going to. Hackathons are a great opportunity for everyone to learn, make friends, and expand the bounds of possibility.

I hope you’ll say ‘fuck it’ this fall and attend your first hackathon, too.

Spencer Brown | @nworbrecneps | me@spencer.sx