Hackathons are taking the world by storm.

How hackathons will save the US economy

A year ago today, hundreds of college students flooded an auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The stage was set for an educational revolution. As we awaited the opening kickoff, I looked out into the audience and saw 500 students who were about to spend the next 36 hours of their lives turning their ideas into reality.

Instead of spending the weekend partying, these students had come to the University of Michigan to take part in the inaugural MHacks Hackathon. That weekend would change many of their lives forever.

You may be asking yourself, “What is a hackathon?” A hackathon is a marathon where people come together to create things. Most commonly, they produce software applications, as software is easier to develop than ever, costs almost nothing to create except time, and can be deployed to millions of people’s hands in an instant. Anyone can attend a hackathon with zero prior experience, and, by the end of the weekend, have the newfound ability to create.

Hackathons are the biggest thing to happen to education since the rise of the Internet. While the Internet gives people the ability to consume the world’s knowledge, hackathons unleash people’s ability to create. Instead of sitting in a coffee shop or library discussing the world’s problems, people come together at a hackathon to fix those problems right away. There are no tests, no rules, no limitations. The feedback is immediate, and you learn at an unheard of pace by testing your hypotheses right then and there. You deploy your app, show the people around you, and witness how the world reacts. The best part: it’s fun.

Hackers hanging out on the beach during HackTech, the largest hackathon on the West Coast. I would put money that someone in this group ends up being a major part of a billion dollar startup within the next 5-10 years.

And the community around these events is insane. You won’t find the next 10 Mark Zuckerbergs in a dorm room; you’ll find them at a hackathon. Rather than meeting years down the line, they are coming together this weekend. In ten years people will look back and say which hackathon they got their start at, not which university.

The scarcity of technical talent is our nation’s biggest bottleneck. Hackathons are the answer.

Software Is Eating The World and leaving no industry untouched. Since Marc Andreessen’s groundbreaking post in the Wall Street Journal, we have already seen many of his then bold predictions come true already. When he wrote the post three years ago, Apple had just surpassed Exxon Mobil, then the world’s most valuable company. Last week, Google did the same.

“We are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy.”
In May 2012, the median annual wage for software developers was $93,350. By 2022, there will be an additional 222,600 software development jobs.

This is a huge opportunity that will be instrumental in deciding the future of our nation’s economy. Cory Booker gets it. Mark Zuckerberg gets it. Even Obama gets it. In his recent State of the Union Address, he announced that he would be committing $3.1 billion for STEM education.

If you aren’t sold yet, just take a look at the Fortune 500. 41 of the 500 companies are in technology. Amazon is replacing retail stores, Netflix is replacing Blockbuster, Uber is replacing traditional taxi companies, and technical job growth is replacing non-technical job growth in just about every industry.

This time we aren’t seeing another tech bubble. We are seeing the next Industrial Revolution. “More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services.” One problem: our workforce isn’t prepared at all to fuel this explosive growth.

By 2015, 60% of the new jobs being created will require skills only held by 20% of the population
“Our policy at Facebook is literally to hire as many talented engineers as we can find. There just aren’t enough people who are trained and have these skills today.”

The US Education System can’t keep up.

In 2012, 50,000 startups raised $250k or more in funding each. We have fewer than 20,000 Computer Science and Computer Engineering graduates every year. Do the math.

The growth of technical jobs is far outpacing our ability to train people in those skills through traditional means. This is a huge opportunity that we are leaving on the table. Even if each startup only needs to hire one CS grad, universities clearly aren’t producing even close to enough talent.

Additionally, our universities are failing to prepare students for these positions to begin with. We are teaching students how to code, not how to build. Both are important, but the second is what is necessary. Show someone what they can build and you won’t be able to stop them from learning how to code.


Hackathons give people superpowers…in a weekend.

Not only are hackathons changing the way we view education, but they are also providing immense economic opportunity. Hackathons are the most effective vehicle for preparing young people to enter the workforce. If you don’t believe me, attend one. Hackathons are already replacing career fairs like nobody’s business, and you’ll find the fastest growing companies in the world doing everything they can to get in on the gold rush of talent that they are producing.

Since the inaugural event a year ago, 3,000 students from over 125 universities have participated in MHacks at the University of Michigan.

This is just the start. This semester alone, Major League Hacking (the NCAA of hackathons) is supporting 10,000 students participating in over two dozen of these events. Next school year, we will reach 50,000 students. That’s nearly the same number of students studying CS at every university in the US and Canada combined.

Brothers, best friends, and the winners of the Inaugural MHacks. Ali and Ehsan Razfar.

I’ve convinced hundreds of people to attend hackathons. When I first invite them, a common initial response: “I don’t know how to code.”

We tend to have this preconception that we need to do some magic practice to prepare to build things, but in reality, the only real way to learn is to dive in. I can tell you this from experience: there’s no better place to dive in and begin learning than at a hackathon. Hackathons are like gyms — they provide the perfect environment for you to begin building your technical skill set.

It’s time to change the way we view technology. Technology is not an industry, it’s a tool that is disrupting every industry. People aren’t “technical” or “non-technical.” Technology is simply a competitive advantage that anyone can add to their skill set. It’s a force multiplier for everything you do. It allows you to unlimit yourself by replacing rudimentary, repetitive tasks and computation with programs a computer can run in an instant. If you don’t use it, you are making a decision to pass on the greatest competitive advantage that has ever existed.

If we are serious about preparing our youth to enter the workforce, we need to encourage every student to take part in hackathons. They will learn how to code, but also, more importantly, they will become passionate about building things.

Hackathons are taking the world by storm and provide an unparalleled opportunity to get young people excited about technology. If there was a way for me to convince students to spend their weekend learning instead of partying, I would do so in a second.

What will you do?