Highlights from Another Year of Hackathons

Reflecting on the latest season of learning, building, and sharing

As someone who has the privilege of attending countless hackathons across North America for my jobs with Major League Hacking and Wolfram, I love being able to share the special nuances that make every event, no matter what size, unique and unforgettable.

I wrote a piece last year about how 2015–2016 was a year of lifechanging hackathons for me, and figured I’d continue the tradition with another this year!

LIHacks I (Launchpad Coworking — Westbury, NY)

With an organizing team from my own high school alma mater, LIHacks was an event I felt personally attached to. I attended as a volunteer, teaching an Intro to Computer Science workshop.

For me, LIHacks also symbolized the growth of hacker and startup culture on Long Island, a region that traditionally hasn’t embodied either and instead emphasizes success/education through more traditional avenues.

RamHacks (Virginia Commonwealth University — Richmond, VA)

No matter how much preparation an organizing team can do, uncontrollable things can always go wrong. However, this event ran as close to the schedule as possible, with everything happening no more than a few minutes off-schedule in either direction.

On the topic of delicious and unique food, RamHacks had caffeinated espresso red velvet cookies from a local bakery as a midnight snack. Here’s a recap video from the event!

Pictures Courtesy of VCU School of Engineering

HackRice (Rice University — Houston, TX)

This event had one of my favorite hacks of the year, a repo suggestion engine for GitHub! It was a chrome extension called GitStub, and it had a pretty slick user experience, rendering the suggestions seamlessly at the bottom of the browser page.

The campus and weather were beautiful. Maybe it was just my excitement to escape the dreary New York rain, but Austin weather was a nice change for me.

MedHacks (Johns Hopkins University — Baltimore, MD)

I’ll always have a soft spot for uniquely themed events, especially medical ones. As a biomedical engineering major in my pre-CS life, my first foray into hackathons was actually a medical data marathon at Yale almost three years ago! Themed events not only help to bring more unique problems to the forefront of innovation, but also work to make hacker culture more inclusive to those outside of traditional computer science disciplines.

Further, MedHacks was easily one of the best events for facilitating the building of interdisciplinary teams. After opening ceremony, there was an ice-breaker mini event that was centered around helping people from different schools and disciplines to pitch their ideas and skillsets, ultimately forming stronger and more varied teams as a result.

HopHacks (Johns Hopkins University — Baltimore, MD)

HopHacks had one of the biggest turnounts for our Watchdogs 2 cyber security mini-event! Participants got to learn a bit about web security best practices through our guided penetration testing challenge.

After encountering technical difficulties during closing ceremonies, we decided to have an impromptu game of slideshare karaoke, a fun game in which volunteers give presentations on slide decks they’ve never seen before, where the topic is selected by the audience. I’ve done this a few times at other events, but the liveliness of the crowd and the hilariousness of the volunteers was definitely memorable.

MHacks 8 (Detroit Masonic Temple — Detroit, MI)

MHacks has always been an event that has pushed boundaries, and hosting the event at the Detroit Masonic Temple was definitely in line with this philosophy. There were some unique logistical challenges that came along with hosting a hackathon in this type of venue, but I’m really happy that the team was willing to try new things in an attempt to create awesome experiences for all involved.

Year after year, MHacks continues to showcase some of the most memorable hacks. Anyone who walks around during an MHacks demo fair is instantly filled with a sense of awe. One team that I mentored at the event learned how to use some of the audio processing capabilities of Mathematica, ultimately going on to deliver on their moonshot idea, creating OrchestrAI: a realtime musical backtrack composer to help musicians practice improvisation!

HackPrinceton (Princeton University — Princeton, NJ)

Fun and unique mini-events have always been an awesome part of HackPrinceton. Last year, there was a giant inflatable bouncy castle, but they managed to top it this year with a giant game of bubble soccer!

HackPrinceton is typically hosted across a few adjacent buildings, affording participants some flexibility when deciding where to work. Some opted to find a hacking space with more privacy, while others preferred to be closer to workshops or mentors.

DefHacks NY (ThoughtWorks NYC — New York City, NY)

With an organizing team consisting of high school students from across the NYC area, it was great that they secured a partnership with ThoughtWorks, who offered to host the event in a venue that was both centrally located and beautiful.

I’m constantly one to rave about how my expectations are exceeded after each high school hackathon, and this was no different — students from middle school (and even younger) were in attendance, eager to build and share their creations with an enthusiasm many college students are afraid to express.


HackFRee (Manalapan High School — Manalapan, NJ)

Especially at the high school level, institutional support with regards to faculty advisors and venue can greatly elevate the success of an event. Dr. Angelozzi, principal of Manalapan High School, went above and beyond to ensure preparation, day-of logistics, and breakdown of the event were taken care of.

Organizing team members from HackRU and Rutgers USACS volunteered through mentoring and judging for the event as well, giving back to the local community and helping to teach students about how to pursue their technology-oriented goals moving forward.

WHACK (Wellesley College — Wellesley, MA)

One of the aspects that made WHACK such a welcoming event for attendees was the powerful mentor:attendee ratio, peaking at an almost unprecedented 1:3! Many of the mentors were Wellesley alumni, coming back to mentor with a strong sense of pride and dedication toward their college community.

The theme for this WHACK was Hacking the Glass Ceiling, a call to arms to build hacks that helped to mitigate the pervasive cap of success that certain demographic groups face in society. It’s truly great that WHACK also yielded a 73% female & nonbinary participant makeup, as some of the most unique and valuable perspectives are often unrepresented in these discussions.

HopHacks (Johns Hopkins University — Baltimore, MD)

I loved the previous HopHacks, so I was thrilled to be back again in the spring! The organizers directly improved logistics based on the feedback from the prior semester’s event. They were able to cut down the distance between event buildings, and make opening/ceremony auditoriums more easily accessible.

Another one of my favorite hacks was from this event — ComicTrans, an automated comic translator to help non-native readers!

sudo Hack Stetson (Stetson University — Deland, FL)

The more hackathons I attend, the more I’ve come to understand that community is key. Although I’d heard great things about the Florida Hackers community, it wasn’t until this event when I saw how strong their presence truly is across the state, now matter how large or small the event. Getting to talk to members of their community opened my eyes to how tightly knit some of these subgroups are, and how lasting friendships and partnerships are forged that transcend events.

I also learned that Stetson University’s campus strategically placed trees in their main quad in a way that would maximize the number of hammocks that could be set up — this made for a super unique relaxation mini-event.

MHacks 9 (University of Michigan — Ann Arbor, MI)

This time, MHacks was back in the tried and true venue that was used during MHacks 7. As someone who had been here to help with that event as well, I quickly saw all of the advantages that came along with using a familiar venue. The entire event ran like a well oiled machine, due mainly to the experienced organizing team and the “home field advantage”.

The closing ceremony and finalist demos were held in U of M’s beautiful Ross Business School auditorium, a fitting room to show off some equally as amazing hacks.

Bitcamp (University of Maryland — College Park, MD)

To this day, I still say that Bitcamp was my favorite hackathon experience as a participant. I’m a sucker for the “everybody hacking in one giant space” environment and the productive atmosphere that comes along with it. Resources are never more than a few steps away: mentor/sponsor tables line the perimeter, food tables are easily spotted, and organizers roam the floor wearing easily identifiable bandanas. The success of this style is attributable, in no small part, to Bitcamp’s one of a kind venue, the Xfinity Center.

Another thing that Bitcamp handled well was travel accommodations. The Bitcamp team did a wonderful job organizing regional buses to lower the barrier of entry for hackers coming from faraway places. Bitcamp was also the largest MLH hackathon in the Spring, with over 1,100 participants!

Brendan Iribe, cofounder of Oculus, returned to give an opening keynote, emphasizing the importance of building, making mistakes, and iterating quickly.

HackRU (Rutgers University — New Brunswick, NJ)

Having already met most of the HackRU organizing team through the extended hackathon community, I felt very comfortable coming into the event. HackRU unquestionably has a solid track record behind it, and I was thrilled to be a part of it. When taking into consideration how many friends of mine from the tech community have ties to this event, it felt like more than event to me, it felt like I was personally helping to preserve what they made.

HackRU’s spring event is held in the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), which makes for a spacious and accommodating venue. Within the wide open indoor arena, everything was easy to quickly find.

One of the running jokes amongst the organizers is that HackRU can also be referred to as SnackRU”, because of the seemingly endless quantity of snacks that they supply for the hackers all throughout the event.


But there’s still more to come!

2016–2017 was jam packed with 15 weekends of hackathons for me, and it definitely got a little hectic when it came to balancing work/travel with my last two semesters of college as a full time student. Now that the season (and college) are over, I’m taking a bit of a break while figuring out full-time work opportunities, where I’d like to continue working with developer communities in a technical evangelist/developer relations role. I’m also excited for Hackcon V— Major League Hacking’s conference for hackathon organizers designed to strengthen the community through transparency, discussion, and collaboration. This year, it’ll be held in Pocono Springs, PA (Aug 4–6)!

Interested in attending an event, or want to know more about an event that I didn’t talk about here? Check back later in the summer for the list of upcoming 2017–2018 Major League Hacking member events!

Hey, I’m Nick Walsh.

I’m a Technical Evangelist for Wolfram Research and a Hackathon Coach for Major League Hacking, with a passion for technology, eSports, and empowering student developers.