What’s a “hackathon”, exactly?

Everything you need to know about hackathons, their history, and their potential for creativity. The first part of our new series of articles, Hackathons 101.

In the last ten years, dozens of company and university-sponsored “hackathon” events have popped up around the country. If you’re curious about this facet of tech culture or want some information before participating in one, you’ve come to the right place.

Hacking + Marathon = Hackathon

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. A hackathon is a single gathering of coders and innovators, often for 24 hours or more, for the purpose of making something in that limited time frame. Inventions can range from hardware (robots, mechanical arms, etc.) to software (apps, websites, features) to business proposals and more. Though any coding all-nighter can be technically be considered a hackathon, lately hackathons have become a lot more structured, bringing together speaker panels, workshops, and over a thousand hackers in a single weekend. According to Major League Hacking, a hackathon has become an “invention marathon” that’s perfect for novice and experienced tech enthusiasts to learn new skills, meet other passionate creators, and get inspired to take on new projects.

As the name implies, hackathons combine the spirit of “hacking” with the determination of a “marathon”. In our case, “hacking” refers to not only hackers and coding, but also the messy and carefree act of hacking out an idea. The “marathon” aspect — much like running a marathon or binging hours of Netflix — indicates the goal-driven nature of a hackathon as well as the need to persevere through the lengthy challenge. The end result of this combination is an event unlike any other: a sped-up thinktank of determined inventors with the intention and skillsets to move the world forward.

But wait! Aren’t “hackers” a bad thing?

If you’re referring to “black hat” hackers, or those who use their skills to phish for information and break into secure systems, then yes. However, keep in mind that nowadays most of the tech world uses the term “hacker” to refer to “white hat” hacking, or the free-spirited creation of prototypes and search for efficient solutions. As a matter of fact, the first definition of “hacker” in the 1975 glossary embodied this positive spirit:

“A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.” (The New Yorker)

Hackathons reflect the mindset of this original definition. They build off the curiosity of their hackers and channel this collective optimism to solve the world’s problems.

Interested, but not sure if you’re “tech-minded” enough for it?

Thankfully, the term “hackathon” isn’t limited to just hackathons anymore! Nowadays there are film hackathons, history hackathons, baking hackathons, and more. All of them encompass the same premise: creating something (a short film, research project, or cupcake tower) with a team of like-minded individuals in a set amount of time.

A quick history lesson on hackathons (the tech ones)

“Hacking” was coined as early as 1955 (The New Yorker), but the first official hackathon was in June of 1999 with OpenBSD’s Hackathon. The company OpenBSD gathered hackers from around the world to a house in Calgary, Canada. By the end of the week, they managed to make leaps and bounds in integrating stacks into their operating system and only scraped the hardwood once (OpenBSD).

Afterward, other companies began following suit, conducting similar invitation-only hackathons to encourage innovation and sped-up development (HackThePatriarchy). Though the structure often varied, these hackathons usually included a project goal, a set deadline, and a demand for highly skilled individuals (Hackernoon). After personal computers and web development services like Ruby on Rails (2005) and Amazon Web Services (2006) exploded in popularity, hackathons became more complex and started appearing all over the world. Slow processing speeds became less of a time-restraint in developing sessions and programmers began ranging from students to experienced professionals. The bells and whistles of the hackathons we see today — company speaker panels, giveaways, and lots of snacks — came naturally as the events solidified and became more accessible to the public.

The universal appeal of a hackathon explains the wide diversity in those we see today. These days, hackathons have a variety of goals to strive towards: build a startup, contribute to an open source community, develop features for a company, and even compete for cash prizes (Hackernoon). However, what’s surprising is the numerous types of hosts appearing around the country. Major tech companies (ex. Facebook), universities (ex. LA Hacks), and social organizations (ex. Random Hacks of Kindness) are all planning their own hackathons. Give this trend a bit of thought and it makes sense. Hackathons are extremely rewarding for both sides involved. For college campuses, hackathons are often the first real-world experience college students receive and allow student programmers to build their resumes and their love for tech. For major tech-companies, tech conferences and hackathons are a way to not only grow new ideas but also recruit talent and advertise new products. For volunteer organizations, hackathons are a fast way to find solutions to a major social issue.

Of all these hackathons, what makes LA Hacks special?

Though most hackathons follow a similar style, every single one is going to provide a different experience. Some are more competitive, others are targeted at a particular audience, and some are meant for a certain cause. It’s clear that there are a lot of hackathons to choose from and literally a world of locations, goals, and hosts to explore. For any programmer, the need to research your options and choose just one can feel a bit daunting.

LA Hacks 2018 at Pauley Pavilion

Whether this is your first hackathon or fiftieth, I will say LA Hacks in UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion (March 29th-31st, 2019) needs to be on your calendar. Though there will be an entire article in this series explaining why in the weeks to come, here are a couple of quick reasons to consider:

We welcome everyone, really

We welcome students and teams from all around the world to apply. What results is a weekend full of incredible ideas and meaningful connections. Our welcoming nature shows; LA Hacks is one of the biggest student hackathons in California with over 1,300 hackers in attendance last year.

Not a student, but still want to get involved? We partner with speakers and companies both big and small. Find out more by emailing sponsor@lahacks.com!

We’re competitive but open

LA Hacks is technically a competitive hackathon, meaning that teams gather and create their projects in UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion for a shot at our first-place prize. I say “technically” because the competition itself is more low stakes than it seems. We value a learning environment over a cut-throat one and provide workshops, mentors, and speaker panels for creators of all experience levels. What results is a hackathon perfect for everyone, not just the winners.

We’re in the beautiful Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, California

Pauley Pavilion houses both UCLA home games (basketball, volleyball, and gymnastics to name a few) as well as student traditions like Bruin Bash and Spring Sing. With over 11,000 cushioned seats, a huge floor, and a gorgeous four-display video cube in the roof, Pauley is enormous and gorgeous to say the least. We think it’s perfect for our annual LA Hacks competitions and judging by what our previous attendees have said, the cushions are pretty great for sleeping.

As for L.A., must I say more? Whether you’re already in Los Angeles or planning to visit, this city is the place to be. Maybe it’s the year-round sunny weather, the incredible diversity, or the electricity of having so many stars packed into a few square miles.

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Want to learn more about hackathons and tech? Follow our Medium for updates and watch out for our up and coming series Hackathons 101.