What is a Hackathon?

A beginner’s guide.

4 AM. I wake up tucked inside my sleeping bag. My laptop is still open with an unfinished Xcode project. I hear clicking keyboards, light chatter, and coffee brewing. The team of two in the far corner fiddles with an Oculus Rift. Upstairs, another team waves its hands before a Microsoft Kinect. Some people are asleep, but most are fixated on their computer screens, faces glowing blue. Outside, it’s an early Sunday morning in a quiet office park in Irvine, CA. Above the door of the PeopleSpace hangs a vinyl banner, on it printed “HackUCI.” It’s hackathon season.

Hackathons are where your crazy idea becomes reality.
  • Build anything. Software, hardware, websites, apps, music, anything.
  • Projects can be developed in teams or individually.
  • Participants must start their project with a blank slate.
  • Hackathons last anywhere from 6 hours to 24 hours or longer.
Students from the University of California, Irvine and other nearby campuses hack on software and hardware projects.

Hackathons provide three fundamental resources to facilitate creation:

  • Space: Long tables fill the hackspace providing workbenches for teams.
  • Food: All attendees receive free meals and snacks for the duration of the event, making it possible to hack around the clock.
  • WiFi: A stable Internet connection is integral when teams must browse online help resources or access a public web API.

Hackathons don’t have schedules. Hacking begins and ends at particular times, but attendees are free to spend the intervening time as they see fit. Here’s one possible way to spend your time at a 24-hour event:

  • Before hacking begins there’s registration and opening ceremonies. The event organizers will explain the rules of the competition. The companies that sponsors the event may speak and explain what resources they provide (mentorship, API credit, special prizes, etc.).
  • 1 hour of team-forming and brainstorming ideas. You’ll want to find a spot to work and figure out what to build as soon as possible.
  • 3 hours of hacking to your heart’s content.
  • 1 hour of eating snacks, walking around to see what others are working on, and schmooze-ing with sponsors.
  • 2 hours of hacking without a care in the world. ☺
  • 1 hour of rewriting everything after realizing that you didn’t add support for emoji. ☹
  • 1 hour of meal-time. Almost all hackathons provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner for free.
  • 3 hours of hacking ‘til your fingers fall off.
  • 30 minutes of stressing about whether or not your idea will work out.
  • 15 minutes of pair programming with a mentor to fix whatever problems you were having.
  • 15 minutes of silent contemplation about why you didn’t just think of that solution in the first place.
  • 2 hours of getting a bit of fresh air and exercise.
  • 4 hours of napping. It’s advised to get some shut-eye here and there to avoid burn-out.
  • 30 minutes of staring at your computer screen attempting to remember what you were just working on.
  • 3 hours of hacking like it’s 1995.
  • 1 hour of making everything you’ve scrapped together look pretty.
  • 30 minutes of frantically finishing everything before time is up.
  • Time’s up! Presentations begin, judges convene, and winners are selected.
Hackers at MHacks III present their weekend projects to judges, spectators, and other hackers.

Who attends hackathons? Hackathon goers typically have programming experience, though many teams incorporate engineers and designers of all types. Some hackers are first-timers, others are experienced in the art, but all who share a passion for making things are welcome. No matter their skill level, hackers inevitably encounter obstacles: technical bugs, design constraints, and the demanding deadline. Mentors abound at hackathons, providing resources for participants stuck in a rut.

Why do people attend hackathons? Many hackathons offer both monetary and non-monetary prizes to the teams with the greatest hacks, as voted on by a panel of industry judges or other participants. Though the competition allures some participants, winning is never the ultimate objective. Hackers maintain that creation and learning are goals unto themselves.

Do all teams come in with an idea? No. While some attendees come with their team and concept fully-formed, most play it by ear. Experienced hackers take their most off-the-wall idea and run with it, but some of the most incredible hacks are the simplest ones. Fundamental to hacking is that anyone is capable of producing innovative solutions to problems even within absurd time constraints.

What happens to the hacks after the event? The hacks may live on as side projects, become open source software, or be turned into a startup. Nevertheless, many hacks are never touched again after the hackathon is over—but that’s okay! The point is to build something.

Are hackathons fun? You’re not just testing your code at hackathons; you’re testing yourself. Hackathons are grueling trials of endurance and problem solving. However, as attendees will agree, hackathons are the most fun “work” you’ll ever have.

How much do hackathons cost? Nearly every hackathon is free.

HackUCI attendees anxiously await the announcement of the winning teams.

Why “Hack”?

The word “hack” is often misunderstood. The phrase “to hack into” conjures up images of basement-dwellers gaining unauthorized access to confidential systems for malicious purposes. This association is a result of a popular misuse of a word becoming standardized by media.

“To Hack” is “To Create”

Within the hackathon community, “to hack” has a far less polarizing definition that comes from an older use within computer science circles. Hackathon projects are often rough proofs of concepts. The strict time limit encourages teams to focus on core features and hack around obstacles. “Hack” captures this ethos of rapid creation, creativity, and learning.

The Student Hackathon Movement

Hackathons have entered the public spectacle. Many companies host hackathons as internal events to generate new product ideas or as alternatives to conventional recruiting techniques. They’ve even been featured in Academy Award-winning movies.

Outside the PeopleSpace, hackers socialize, brainstorm, and form teams before the hacking begins.

However, the transformational power of hackathons only became apparent when they infiltrated academia. A few days before their finals began, 250 undergraduates from a range of technical disciplines and universities placed their studies aside. Instead, they congregated at a local co-working space to spend their weekend hacking. At HackUCI, UC Irvine’s inaugural collegiate hackathon, curious computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and designers formed groups, hatched ideas, wrote code, and designed hardware. Teams picked their own projects, which ranged from virtual reality experiences to mobile applications to interactive websites. After 36 straight hours, teams presented their “hacks” to other participants in an expo reminiscent of a science fair.

HackUCI is part of the burgeoning student hackathon movement: a legion of hackathons hosted by students for students. What began in 2011 with the first PennApps at the University of Pennsylvania has spread to over 100 schools across the nation. There’s now a sports league and an array of regional events at various campuses. Larger hackathons, including those at the University of Michigan, the University of Maryland, the University of Texas, MIT, UCLA, and CalTech, provide free transportation so hackers from other campuses can collaborate and compete. Better yet, the movement’s growth is viral. Each year more and more universities (and high schools!) around the globe host their first hackathon.

While traditional educational institutions are struggling to motivate students, hackers voluntarily spend their free time doing what most would consider difficult yet valuable work. Lectures lack an immediate feedback-loop and have remained largely unchanged despite the ubiquity of the personal computer. Hackathons offer a more interactive experience that engages students. Even the most seasoned hackers attend hackathons to acquire new skills. Maybe a classroom isn’t the best place to learn.

The winning teams and organizers of HackUCI take a bow after the event.

So boot up your text editor and grab your breadboards. Be a part of the movement that’s disrupting education as we know it. Attend your local student hackathon, travel to an event, or host one yourself. Let’s hack.