Hackathon — A place to find your passion

1,000 students. 36 hours of hacking. Free Food. Free Swag. And to top it all off, free prizes for the best hacks. These are some of the awesome reasons why one might want to attend a hackathon. Hackathons are a weekend-long event, where students from all over the world join and collaborate on building cool projects with access to new technologies as a team.

Over the past few years, the number of hackathons have been increasing throughout different campuses around the province. As I attend more of these events, I realize that hackathons are so much more than a competition on who can build the best app. It’s about finding your passion as an engineer. Hackathons are a chilled-back style of a competition, where the main focus is bringing talented students in one building where they strive to create meaningful projects within their timespan of 36 hours. During these hours, teams have the opportunity to learn by attending keynotes and workshops that are usually held by companies that sponsored the event. If that doesn’t sell you, then you will be happy to know that free food is available around the clock, so you can continue to hack as long as you need to. It can be a scary event for first-time hackers, but I highly encourage you to try one and surely you’ll be hooked onto it. Through this post, I’ll share various activities that go down during the hackathon and how it can help you find your passion within the type of problems you wish to solve, the technologies you want to use or simply to attend more hackathons.

My first hackathon was Hack the North at University of Waterloo in 2014 and I was starstruck by how many co-founders and engineers that were available throughout the event. I explicitly remember being in the same room as them, as they discussed their experiences and words of advice to a room full of future engineers. After the keynotes, I met up with my team where we developed a Pebble smartwatch application intended to be a saviour to whoever that was in a difficult situation. The application would either contact the emergency contact or emergency services with a click of a button on the Pebble smartwatch.

Not only was this a beneficial learning experience to learn technologies using Android SDK and Pebble interface, but it was important to bridge the gap between implementing a solution that had a real impact on the users that will use the application. As the time allocated to the hack elapsed, it was time to present our solution to a panel of judges. I believe the best part of the weekend was to present our little solution using the Pebble smartwatch to the CEO of Pebble who gave us great insights on how we can improve our application.

Judges for Hack the North 2014

Find a Team

Finding teammates to work with is extremely important if you are going to spend the entire weekend in developing a solution. Be open to people who can bring various perspectives and experiences. Hacking with friends is a good start, but there is so much to learn from people that you haven’t met yet, which can also be a beginning of a new friendship. Before the event, reach out to individuals who are attending the hackathon and ask if they have a team for the event. Use this opportunity to learn how to collaborate on projects with different team members, a skill that is highly required in the workplace.

Solve a Problem You Care About

When the problem speaks out to you, the weekend becomes so much more interesting rather than just coding. Whether you are passionate about cooking, sports or saving the planet, there are tons of opportunities to use software and/or hardware that can have a positive impact for your future potential users. And who knows, this projects might turn up to be something much more meaningful down the road. If you are not sure about the problems you wish to solve, talk to other people and mentors that are available. Maybe through a hackathon, you can find your passion in solving a problem that means a lot to you.

Network with Students and Sponsors

I cannot stress this point enough. Hackathons provides an opportunity where you can meet other talented students like you, where you can network and learn to get to know them. So don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. Apart from that, meet with recruiters that are attending the hackathon as sponsors regarding their co-op/full-time opportunities. This is the chance to create a great first impression and hopefully land an interview, so don’t forget to bring your resume.

Getting Mentorship

If technology is your passion, try playing with new technologies and APIs to build up your tech stack. If you end up getting lost in the way, don’t be afraid to reach out to engineers that are there. Most of the times, engineers from various companies attend the hackathon to provide support on their tools and answer any questions regarding their job. Try to seek advice and help from these engineers and find ways to motivate yourself to become a better engineer in the process.

Attend Workshops and Keynotes

If you get a chance, attend workshops and keynotes that you normally would not go to. This is a great opportunity to learn something new and meet people with different backgrounds. As an example, in my last hackathon I attended a workshop regarding design where I was introduced to this cool free application that allowed my team to prototype our idea quite rapidly.

Have Balance

Important! Hackathons can be a tiring experience with a lot of activities that are going on, so be sure to be well-rested and have enough energy to be able to deliver your hack. Be sure to sleep, so you don’t look like a zombie after 36 hours of coding and try to limit sugary drinks. Avoid energy drinks at all cost as they damage more than help. As a reminder, be sure to eat, drink, sleep and walk once in a while.

Tools to Help You Hack

Figma — Wireframing

GitHub — Code Collaboration

Firebase — Server-less Database

Watson — Language, Speech & Data APIs

Be sure to download IDEs, Libraries and Packages the night before…

To Sum It All Up

Hackathons are a weekend-long event where you collaborate on solutions with a team of students. Through this process, you will get introduced to new faces and minds, try out new challenges, play with new technologies and discover what you are really passionate about with no cost at all. Unfortunately, hackathons are usually a student thing, so make sure to take full advantage of them while you are in university or college.

First-time Hacker?

Interested in going to a hackathon, but aren’t sure where to begin? Check out a beginner-friendly hackathon below at University of Waterloo happening on March 3rd. Good Luck and Happy Hacking!