Hackathon…..what?

Image courtesy: Hackernoon

What is a hackathon? What do people do at this geeky named event? Do they hack some website? CIA Stuff? Do they have to run while coding? Or is it just an event where geeks try to act cool?

Okay, hold on. Simply put, Hackathon is an event where people try to solve some real-world problems by hacking a way out for it. By hacking, we mean, using present technologies and combine them in some or the other manner, to make something which solves a real-life issue, all of it in a limited time frame (24–30 hours usually). A team of individuals (generally 4–5 people) is provided with food, internet, power supply, a place to work and a problem to solve. There are other teams along with them. They work within the specified time, brainstorm about the possible solutions to the problem statement/theme of the event. All the teams then present their ideas along with a prototype to the judges, who then select the winners of the hackathon.

Wait…what technology? What problem? How to solve it and build the prototype in just 24 (or maybe 30) hours?

The organizers provide some themes or problem statements, for example, women safety, the Financial inclusion of Local Shops and vendors, or maybe an improvement in the health sector, i.e., it can be anything (and usually there is an option to choose from one of the many themes provided by the organisers). You have to then google about the problem, the present solutions and if there is something you can do to improve the present state. For ex, if you can make a web app or Android app or maybe an IoT device or just anything which solves the purpose in the best way, is a winning project. The best thing about a hackathon is, you need not be an expert in one or the other thing. You can completely learn a new thing and make something using this newly acquired knowledge. Someone with no programming experience, no prior hackathon experience can also take part in the event.

The word “HACK” is there to tell you that you cannot build a new “facebook” from scratch in one night. You have to make some way around your solution to implement a working prototype using something existing in such a way that it solves the cause and can be implemented in 24–30 hours. You can use open sourced tools, libraries, APIs or anything which will help you convert your idea into a working prototype in a small time-frame. Also, there are mentors around who will help you with shaping your ideas, problems in the implementation and general guidance.

But, hackathons are not just meant to be like any another competition where you have to just fight to defeat others. It has a vast “fun” element. A lot of fun activities, tech sessions, games, etc. keep happening parallel to the event.

The Key takeaways from a hackathon are:

  1. Networking — Hackathons are the event where you will find like-minded passionate people. From developers to investors, you will find all under one roof. Depending on what you want, there is a good chance that you can add some more awesome people to your network. Most of the sponsor companies send their representatives in the events. So it would be a great opportunity to reach out recruiters if you are looking for a new opportunity. Make sure you don’t spend entire time working with your team, take a walk and reach out to people who interest you. At least you will get some new hacker buddies for sure.
  2. Projects/Ideas — At the end of the hackathon, you have a small prototype and a cool idea. You can go back home and expand the idea and prototype to some good personal and open sourced project. You don’t have to worry about finding a team, searching an idea and then starting the project (which, at times results in a prolonged growth of the project). Also, during the pitching season, you get to see ideas of other teams as well.
  3. Learn new technologies — Hackathons are a great place to start with something new. Your focus should be to learn something new in every hackathon. You want to learn “React”? Make your next hackathon app using “React”. Also, the unique themes may require you to study about something different like blockchain, VR, etc. which ultimately leads to new projects and/or new ideas to implement.
  4. Presentation Skills — As I mentioned, after you are done hacking around, you have to present your hack (your app, prototype, device, etc) to the judges. You have to sell your solution to them. How is it better than the existing solutions, feasibility, scalability, etc. This will help you improve your presentation and communications skills.
  5. Cool schwag and goodies — You must have seen some of your friends wearing sponsored t-shirts, carrying sponsored goodies, laptops full of crazy stickers and all sort of stuff. You get so many sponsored goodies at these hackathons to show off.
  6. Exciting Prizes — There are various prizes for the winners of the hackathon. Grand prize, Category prize, sponsor category prize, etc.
You need not be an expert in any technology, no need of being a pro coder, or even a coder at all. You work on hardware, you work on software, you are a designer, or you are a complete beginner, hackathon is the place for you. All you need to bring is your laptop and charger and enthusiasm to learn, and you will be surprised how this awesome community will start guiding you in the best possible manner.

Some advice for the first-time hackers:

  1. Have a Diverse Team: Try to have a diverse team for the hackathon. Having a good balance of developers, designers and/or hardware enthusiasts can always improve your chance of winning.
  2. Wear Loose clothes: Hackathons involve longer sitting hours in front of your computer. Hence wearing shorts or PJ’s with a geeky t-shirt is always better than wearing skinny jeans.
    P.S: Most hackathons have their own t-shirts so there is a good chance you will be wearing one of those.
  3. Take Extension Sockets/Chords: Every hackathon tries to provide best power arrangements. But even after that, you might end up having a faulty socket. Having your own extension in such situations can save you a lot of hassle.
  4. Carry at-least one ID Card — Always remember to carry any one ID card of yours which can be used in case of emergency or during security check at the event venue.

If you are new to the hackathon environment, hopefully, you will find lots of good experiences along your journey.

IEEE Women in Engineering DTU’s hackathon is being organised on 27–28 October 2017. To find out more, register at VIHAAN’s website.

Happy Hacking!