Worried about attending your first hackathon? Hackathons can sound scary… but really they’re fun and relaxed events where you can learn how to create cool technology.
Hackathons are weekend-long technology festivals. They’re somewhere you can meet like-minded people, learn new things, and create cool technology. They can sound pretty intimidating… but you don’t have to be some sort of genius or a coding pro to take part.
I was previously the Commissioner for Major League Hacking, the official student hackathon league, so I’ve been to a ton of these events. You should come too! Here’s what you can expect from a hackathon, why it’s awesome to go to these events, and why you shouldn’t be scared of taking part.
What do I do at a hackathon?
When you turn up to a hackathon, you’re going to be greeted by a bunch of friendly students who are above all passionate about learning. It depends on the hackathon, but a “bunch” can be anything from 50 to over 1000 students. There’ll be some volunteers and organizers ready to sign you in, hand you some complimentary swag, and answer any questions you might have.
First thing you probably want to do is put your bags somewhere and chat to some new people while you wait for the opening ceremony to begin. Hackathons are very much a social event. So don’t waste any opportunity to talk to somebody. Try to find out what they’re planning to do this weekend, what technology they’re using, and if they’ve been to a hackathon before.
Eventually, you’ll all be shuffled into an auditorium for the opening talks. The organizers will come up and tell you a bit about the event and what’s planned for the weekend. Then you’ll get to hear from the sponsors. Some companies will be sponsoring prizes to do with their technology and will give a quick demo in how to use it. Other companies might be there to tell you about their internship program. Sometimes somebody famous might come to talk.
Then hacking begins. You’ll team up with some other students to have fun making something cool. You can make anything you want using whatever technology you want. And it doesn’t have to be to win a prize. Hackathons aren’t really about winning prizes. They’re about playing with awesome technology.
You’ll be able to spend a full 24–36 hours working on your project if you want to. Some crazy people do just that! But you can take a break to eat some of the free meals and snacks provided and grab some sleep. There’s usually some fun activities (or hacktivities, geddit?) so everyone can have a nice break from working. Be honest, when’s the last time you got to play laser tag at midnight with 100 other people? When’s the last time you got to race around a building on a scooter whilst wearing a robin hood hat and extension cords as necklaces?
It will be a crazy rush to get your project finished. There will be last-minute bugs everywhere. But eventually you’ll have to call it a day. Hacking’s over and it’s demo time.
At smaller hackathons (with fewer than 200 people) everybody will demo their hacks in an auditorium in front of everybody else. It doesn’t matter if your hack doesn’t work properly or if you think your hack is dumb, it’s a chance to share what you learned over the weekend. And it’s so cool seeing what everyone else made. For hackathons larger than 200 people, demos in front of everyone get way too long. so instead, they usually do a science fair. Everybody walks around looking at everybody else’s hacks and a handful are chosen to demo in front of all the attendees during the closing ceremony. Prizes will be announced, thanks will be made, and you’ll all be invited to come again next time.
Why should I go to a hackathon?
There are three big reasons hackathons are awesome.
1. Hackathons are for learning
You’ll gain more practical knowledge in one hackathon than you learn in a month of lectures. People say this all the time. Hackathons are a super-condensed learning experience. You learn about idea generation, working with others, managing a project, how to use the libraries, frameworks, and APIs that are used by software engineers every day, how to work to a deadline, how to debug, how to do version control, how to deploy, how to test and improve your work, how to present your work on stage, and much more. When you work with others, you’re going to pick up so many new tips and tricks. These are all skills which will make you a better developer and these are all skills which will help you get a job/internship.
“I learned more in one weekend than I did in the last month of lectures!”
Have you ever tried to learn something, spent an hour practicing it, then never gotten back to it? Yep? Me to. But if you have 24 solid hours to work on something, you can learn a lot. Want to learn how to code? Go to a hackathon. Want to learn a new framework? Go to a hackathon. Got a great idea for an app that you never have time to make? Go to a hackathon.
2. Hackathons are for meeting people
You’re going to make some new friends. If you’re into tech or making stuff, you’re going to love the inventive, smart, fun people you meet at hackathons. And you’ll get to meet people from all over the world. People who you’d never get a chance to meet otherwise. I know people who live on other sides of the country, but are best friends because they worked together at a hackathon. I know people who started companies together because they met at a hackathon. It’s a fantastic place to share ideas, learn from others, and build connections.
Speaking of building connections, hackathons are like career fairs on steroids. If you’re looking for an internship or a job in the tech industry, guess where companies are recruiting? At hackathons of course! Unlike career fairs, you have a proper chance to meet the developers. You can spend a weekend with them, learning from them, showing them your work, and making an impression. I also know a ton of friends who have gotten jobs directly from hackathons.
3. Hackathons are cheap
Food, drink, and snacks are all free for the weekend! You don’t need to pay for accommodation. Some events even organize transport or (if you’re lucky) offer some travel reimbursements. Travel is really the only cost for hackathons. If there’s one near you, great! If you have to travel a bit, book travel well in advance and try to find out if there’s a coach to the hackathon that could pick you up. If you need to travel, it’s definitely worth the investment. Also, likelihood is you’re going to walk away with some cool free t-shirts, stickers, or prizes.
You shouldn’t be scared of hackathons
People ask me all sorts of things about their first hackathon. They’re often worried about whether or not they’ll fit in. Fact is you don’t have to be a coding master to take part and have a good time. Here’s my FAQ:
What if I don’t know how to code?
No problem! I didn’t know much about coding when I went to my first hackathon either. And I’ve seen complete beginners at every hackathon I’ve been to since. If you’ve never coded before, it’s a great opportunity to spend a weekend learning. You’ll be surrounded by experienced coders, willing to help you out. Coding can look pretty difficult, but actually it’s easy to get started. You can go here and begin right now if you’d like.
If you already have some experience, you’ll fit into a team no problem. Your team will help teach you some new things and give you tasks to complete so you can build a project together.
Will I annoy people if I ask them questions?
You’re not going to annoy anybody! These events are wholly centred around learning and having fun. You’re meant to go and ask questions. Everybody will be willing to listen to your questions and help you learn new things. There will also be mentors from some top companies who are there to listen to questions and help you out.
If you can’t find somebody to help you out, go ask the volunteers. If they can’t help you themselves, they’ll help find you somebody who can.
What if I don’t know anybody there?
Not to worry! You’ll meet people when you get there. Everybody’s very friendly. A lot of people go to hackathons without teams. So it’s perfectly normal to go around to people, tell them you’re looking for a team, and ask if you can help out.
Hackathons will often run team-matching sessions at the start to help you meet people. And you can often join a facebook group for the event beforehand and post there to find potential teammates.
Protip: Invite your friends to come to the hackathon too! That way you’re guaranteed to have at least one familiar face.
What if I don’t have an idea?
That’s normal. Most people don’t have an idea before they get to the event. But once you start talking to other people, you might come up with something. You can also work with somebody else on their idea if you like it. And there will be prizes at the event which might help give you some ideas. Don’t worry about it, you’ll find something to work on.
Where can I sleep?
Sometimes the organizers will have put aside a quiet, dark room you can get some rest. If that’s the case, there are usually two rooms separated by gender. Due to venue restrictions, sometimes you’re going to have to grab some sleep on a sofa or on the ground beside your table. Either way, you should bring a sleeping bag and maybe a pillow to the event. Sleeping at hackathons isn’t always the most comfortable arrangement, but it’s worth it for the experience.
Will there be food?
Yep! Your meals for the weekend will be free and there’ll be plenty of snacks and drinks.
What if I don’t want to present my hack?
You might think your hack isn’t impressive enough to present. or you might think it won’t win a prize so why bother? Don’t be silly. Hackathons aren’t about winning prizes. And they aren’t about showing off. They’re about learning and playing with technology. There is absolutely no reason not to share what you’ve been working on for the weekend. Even if your hack doesn’t work or you couldn’t finish it, people like hearing about what you tried to do, what challenges you faced, what technology you used, and what you learned.
Great! How can I get involved?
Check out the MLH website for a list of upcoming student hackathons in the US, Europe, Canada, and Mexico. Hack Club also maintains a list of high school hackathons which you can check out here. If you’re yearning for more info, check out all these articles.
But most importantly, find a hackathon near you and go to it.
Only starting to learn to code? Read How to learn to code.