How hackathons teach you about technology and yourself

Our team, showing off to the judges. The dinosaur is part of our project.

I had the privilege of attending HackMIT 2017, a hackathon for undergraduate students around the world. This is the first event of this type I have attended and put simply, it was amazing.

For the uninitiated, a hackathon is an event where people come together and collaborate on innovative projects, often around technology, for 24 to 48 hours.

When you start working on a project with a team of strangers, trying to ideate, develop goals, and delegate tasks can be very difficult. It’s nearly impossible to get things right the first time. Such a challenge requires all members of the team be adaptable in their roles and work.

The team I was on spend almost 4 of our 24 hours just on ideation and following individual interests (collecting SWAG), before we started working. We ended up going for the simplest idea we had. Think Tamagachi for the browser; we call it Browser Pets.

After our 24 hours were up, we barely had a working demo for the judges at the end of the event. I was integrating the last piece of code as time ran out. We didn’t win anything but people seemed to resonate with what we were trying to do and that we focused more on enjoying our time than making something crazy.

Hackathons are not all about projects. There are typically speakers, workshops, Q&A sessions to attend. Sponsors send teams to recruit students and talk about their latest technologies. A few of the companies with representatives at this event included Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, and Disney.

I attended workshops on quantum computing, natural language processing, deep neural networks, and more. In addition to that there were some fantastic speakers that represented the full spectrum of the tech industry. Small startup founders, VPs, founders that had exit events, and more.

There are some things I will do differently next time. The first is to come up with ideas ahead of time. This will help speed up the idea stage so we can get working faster.

I would also take the time to set up a Trello board with bite-sized tasks neatly organized so we can keep track of progress and work with more autonomy, including a specified deliverable at the end.

I think it is necessary to set up a dedicated channel for communication so we’re all seeing changes, clarifications, and updates. Along those lines is to make sure we have a system to share code as we’re writing it.

I am so glad to have had this opportunity to learn and grow at this event. I look forward to doing more in the coming year and hopefully taking a team of NAU-PV students with me.

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