What is a hackathon?

Sounds scary, right? Don’t worry, it’s not that type of hacking.

Over the past year, hackathons have taken the country by storm. You might have even seen a small one in “The Social Network.” No, we don’t break into your school’s computers.

“A hackathon, a hacker neologism, is an event when programmers meet to do collaborative computer programming.” -Wikipedia

Hackathons provide a venue for self-expression and creativity through technology. People with technical backgrounds come together, form teams around a problem or idea, and collaboratively code a unique solution from scratch — these generally take shape in the form of websites, mobile apps, and robots.

A notable example of a hackathon “hack,” GroupMe is a group messaging app that was acquired by Skype for over $50 million. Other notable examples include the Facebook “Like” button and Facebook Chat which were both first demoed at internal company hackathons. Tess Rinearson has a great list of “The 8 Kinds of Projects You Meet at a Hackathon.”

Hackers Hacking

Take PennApps and MHacks, the two largest student hackathons, for example. They bring together over 1000 student hackers from universities across the globe for one of the most high-energy weekends of their lives. Students get to the hackathon, and, within a couple hours, are working furiously on a project with a motley group of people that they may have just met. Over the course of the weekend, they learn how to work with new technologies, throw together tons of code, and hopefully finish what they set out to build.

Despite the complete lack of sleep, these events are addicting, and the community building around them is growing faster than ever. Instead of meeting at a coffee shop or conference to discuss the world’s problems every weekend, you’ll find many of these students at a hackathon tackling them head on. To facilitate this fast-growing tidal wave of hackathons, Mike Swift started Major League Hacking which aims to be the NCAA of Hackathons.

Whether we are building a website, mobile app, or even hardware hack, the goal is to start from scratch and end with a working prototype. Generally, these events last from 24-48 hours and are filled with food, caffeine, prizes, and, you guessed it, more caffeine. After time runs out, teams demo what they’ve built and compete for prizes.

To sum it up, at a hackathon, people come together and use technology to transform ideas into reality.

“The word hackathon is a portmanteau of the words hack and marathon, where hack is used in the sense of playful, exploratory programming, not its alternate meaning as a reference to computer crime.” -Wikipedia

Aside: With an emphasis on finishing something before the deadline, hackathons have received some criticism for their encouragement of poorly-written code and unhealthy sleeping and eating habits.