Kickstart Your Career by Attending a Hackathon!

Who is this article for?

Are you a university student pursuing a degree in STEM or business? Are you entering the job market and you want to make your LinkedIn profile stand out among those of your peers? Are you looking to meet and network with brilliant people interested in science and technology? Or, are you just looking to get some free food?

If you answered YES to one of the questions above, then attending a hackathon might be the next best step forward. If that is the case, I invite you to keep reading.

What to expect from this article?

The purpose of this article is 2-fold.

Firstly, I would like to explain what a hackathon is. In the lat few years, the word has accumulated quite some buzz around it and is being thrown left and right all over the internet. However, if you have not yet been to a hackathon yourself, chances are that you have no idea what it is apart from it being somewhat related to technology. Let me change that.

Secondly, I shall make a case for why attending a hackathon will be beneficial to you. Specifically, I will focus on the positive effects on one’s career and how these can be amplified by performing well in the competition.

So, what is a hackathon?

A hackathon is an event which brings bright minds from all over the globe in one place to let them tackle real world problems using state-of-the-art technology. The main purpose of hackathons is to provide a nurturing environment where smart people can drive innovation. They are usually hosted by tech companies, universities or a communities of tech enthusiasts and they usually last a couple of days.

A standard template for a hackathon looks something like this: Participants are grouped into teams of 3 to 5 members and presented with a set of open ended problems posed by the event’s sponsors (tech companies, government organisations, universities and solo philanthropists).

Each team chooses a challenge they want to address and then they devote the next 24 hours (or 36, 48 depending on the event) to creating a working Proof of Concept (POC), typically skipping sleep to achieve the most in this very narrow timeframe.

These POCs are then pitched to a jury consisting usually of authorities on technology and business from the ranks of the organisers and sponsor companies. The best projects win prizes and eternal glory.

Why should you attend hackathons?

One reason for attending hackathons that immediately comes to mind is, plainly, because it is fun. Obviously… Who would not have a blast when hanging out with smart people and solving together important problems of our age?

But you did not come here to read about how hackathons are fun. You are ambitious and hungry for success. You do not do things just for entertainment and you want to know if a weekend spent hacking around with the other geeks is worth your precious time.

So, without any further ado, let me present to you the 3 most compelling arguments for showing up at the next hackathon event near you.

Benefit 1) -> Development of valuable skills

Let us look at what opportunities does an average hackathon offer to its participants when it comes to personal development. I am including the 2 most prominent ones and discussing them in detail.

Become a great collaborator!
One of the things that you will get to practice is working in a face paced, start-up style environment. Remember, you have around 48 hours to assemble a team and solve a non trivial technical problem. To succeed, you will have to effectively collaborate with others, even complete strangers.

This is a very highly regarded ability in the professional world and people who are able to manifest it are much desired candidates for employment. In other words, you can think of hackathons as a practice arena where you can work on mastering this immensely valuable skill while having fun doing so.

Boosted learning of specific skills
Another advantage related to learning that hackathons offer is the pressure of team commitments and tight deadlines. To see how this works, let us assume that you are a junior software developer who really wants to learn Python but has been putting it off due to lack of time or some other pseudo reasonable excuse.

Now imagine that you are in the middle of a hackathon, the code of the project is Python, there are 24 hours to go and your team is counting on you to do your part. Are you going to let them down? HELL NO! You are going to study tirelessly and apply your findings to the best extent possible. Consequently, you end up knowing quite a bit about Python.

Not surprisingly, this learning boost supported by the ultra motivating environment of a hackathon works analogously for any other skill. It does not matter if it is technical, like proficiency in a programming language or knowledge of advanced machine learning techniques, or on the softer side, like marketing, speaking in public or leading a team.

Finally, it is important to realise that from a learning perspective, the specific outcome of the project (success or failure) is completely irrelevant. The short yet intense burst of effort you invested during the competition will result in you leaving the event with significant foundations in a new skill. You are free to keep building on top of these foundations for the rest of your life or boasting about them in your future job interviews (more on that later).

Benefit 2) -> Networking with important people

Here by important I mean people who, in addition to giving you the immediate pleasure of befriending a stranger and starting a potentially long lasting positive relationship with them, can prove to be of great utility to you later on in your life, especially in your professional career.

What NOT to do!
But before I tell you what to do, let me first stress out what NOT to do when it comes to treating your fellow hackathon contenders. Read carefully the following paragraphs as they are very important.

Do not get fooled into thinking that they are your rivals. Instead, remind yourself that they are essentially your brother-at-arms in the quest for advancing human innovation. The competition setting of the event is there only to increase motivation and help you push yourself to the limit, nothing more.

Long story short, if you lock yourself in the Zero-Sum Game mindset and restrain yourself from positively engaging with others, you are leaving massive personal and professional growth potential on the table and this is as true in hackathons as well as in any other setting (school, work, community etc..)

What to do?
Now that we have this potentially disastrous obstacle out of our way, how should one go about approaching other participants? Easy! Just walk around the venue every once in a while and say “Hi!” to the first passerby.

Although people at hackathons come from diverse backgrounds, they all share a passion for technology, a deep urge to make the world a better place and general openness to sharing their point of view. Hence, a simple “Hey, so what are you building here?” or “Hey, where are you from?” can be very effective Ice Breakers and serve as a first set of keys to a stranger’s heart.

Remember, you can use these same techniques to approach the organisers and representatives of the sponsor companies as well. Keep in mind that they are at the event because of you. They want to get to know you, so do not be shy!

Think of it this way: The math wiz from your hackathon team can later become your best buddy who will boldly follow you into your first start-up venture while the friendly gal from Google’s stand can be your ticket to the summer internship of your dreams.

To conclude the section with Nassim Taleb’s lingo (get my Reading List if you do not know who he is), networking at a hackathon is a great way to expose yourself to positive Black Swans.

Benefit 3) -> Extra content to your professional portfolio

Let us examine the 2 dimensions in which participating in hackathons can help you build your profile. This is especially useful for university students searching for internships or fresh graduates looking to land their first full time offers.

Hackathons look sexy on a resume!
Adding sections with projects lying outside of university curriculum or direct work experience always makes a resume look better and hackathons are a great source for such projects. Along with showing that you invest your free time into meaningful pursuits, you can use this resume segment to highlight proficiency in certain skills to help you land the job of your dreams.

Say, for example, that you want to work as a data scientist and you already have the theoretical foundations for this role from university. Then, building a Machine Learning model as part of a hackathon project to solve a real world problem can be a nice way to solidify your understanding of the topic as well as to signal to your employers that you can apply theory into practice. This significantly increases the odds of you getting invited for the technical interview.

Finally, keep in mind that the positive impact a hackathon section can have on your resume can be greatly amplified by performing well on the competition. In other words, although “Attended Hackathon XYZ” sounds much better than nothing, “Placed 1st at Hackathon XYZ” sounds much better still. So when you do go, make sure to try hard! By the way, an article where I go over strategies for winning hackathons is coming soon, so stay tuned (you can subscribe for updates here).

Content for interviews
In the section above, we have learned how hackathon experiences can help you get interview invitations. Now, let us explore how they can be leveraged in the interview process itself. Again, if you are a student or a recent graduate, pay close attention.

The hard truth is that the hiring managers are not going to be that interested in the courses you have taken in university (exceptions being the super scientific roles, of course). For them, the education segment of you resume serves as just the initial filter, something like: “Oh, coming from this school, she must be smart. Let’s give her a chance”.

Hence, good grades on its own will not get you the job of your dreams. You need to support it with data points proving that you complement your intellect with sound aptitude for work. The thing is that these data points are best supplied via work experience.

Do you see the hidden Chicken and Egg dilemma? You need work experience to get a job and you need a job to get work experience. What an intractable problem, right? Do not despair, there is a solution!

To break this spiral, you need extracurricular projects. To get these, you can either try to join a university research group, come up with a project yourself or, drum rolls please, attend a hackathon.

Trust me, with a few hackathon experiences under your belt, you will be more than able to impress your interviewers when they throw at you queries like “Tell me about the coolest project you have worked on”. That is exactly how I aroused interest in my interviewers and ultimately landed a dream internship at Amazon (you can read more about internships at Amazon here).

Hence, a successful hackathon can be the key to your first internship. This first internship will get you a second one, maybe at a better company and the second one will render you suitable for an amazing opportunity later in your career. In other words, this is how hackathons can be used to break the “work experinece spiral” explained above and kickstart your career.

Keep in mind also that the memory of an attended hackathon will remain with you forever and can always be used to strike an empowering conversation, whether it is with a hiring manager at your next professional interview, or with a perfect stranger at a dinner party.

Conclusion

My hope is that by now you have a rough idea about what a Hackathon is and that you understand the role these events play in humanity’s technological advancement as nourishing hubs for both bright minds and bold ideas.

I consider this article successful if, after reading the 3 reasons why I think young, ambitious and tech savvy people should attend hackathons, namely:

  1. Learning
  2. Networking
  3. Profile building

you are now browsing Google and looking for available hackathons near you. (try the Major League Hacking website).

Let me know if I succeeded via a comment. Also, let me know what were your favourite hackathon experiences and how did they push you forward in your career? I am curious!

Thank you for reading my article!
Have a great day!

Tomas Ye
Gymnast, Mathematician and Software Engineer
Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn:

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