The Spirit of Hackathons

Tim Fogarty
Published in
3 min readJul 18, 2016


65,000 students gather at campuses around the world to take part in Major League Hacking Member Hackathons every year. What draws so many students to these events? Well they definitely love all the cool tech, food, and swag they get from companies like Dell and Oculus. But I think the big reason students go is because they find the spirit of hackathons so compelling. So what’s the big deal? And what is the Hacker Spirit anyway?

Hackathons are a lot like marathons. People go to marathons for many different reasons. Some people go because they want to compete at a high level. But most of us take part because we want to improve ourselves, make friends, and have fun. It’s great that hackathons cater to so many different motivations from a wide variety of people.

It’s good to keep in mind that although hackathons are structured like a competition, most people are there to learn and have a good time. In the annual hacker survey, MLH asked over 2000 hackathon attendees why they like going to hackathons. Learning, meeting new people, and simply having fun came out on top.

The Hacker Spirit is Learn, Build, Share. Here are some top tips of how to embody the Hacker Spirit when you go to hackathons.


The Hacker Spirit is about learning and teaching. Talk to other teams to find out what they’re working on. Hackathons are great for beginners. They are a great opportunity to learn new things and meet new friends. Remember, asking for help is okay! Everybody at the hackathon will be happy to help you! If you’re not comfortable asking for help from another hacker, feel free to ask an organizer, mentor, or sponsor — they’ll be delighted to help! Getting help on your hack won’t make you lose points, it’s what you’re meant to do!

Offer help and constructive feedback when you can. But be sure not to be condescending. For example, do not feign surprise (“OMG how can you not know what Node.js is!?”) but introduce people to things they may not know.

Saying ‘what kind of an idiot doesn’t know about the Yellowstone supervolcano’ is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano for the first time. — XKCD


Another big part of the Hacker Spirit is building. You should endeavour to build something at the event. Hackathons are about building, not about pitching a business idea. Demos of working applications are encouraged and pitches or presentations are discouraged. If you weren’t able to finish a working demo, that’s fine! Show us what you managed to get built, and tell us what you learned! What matters is that you attempted to build something — that’s the true Hacker Spirit!


Teams should communicate, be friendly to each other, and work together. You’ll get a lot more from the event by working with other teams than by trying to work against them. Teams are encouraged to offer help and advice to each other.

Refusing to help another team because of competition is not in the spirit of hackathons and isn’t very sporting. You shouldn’t be afraid to share your ideas with other teams. Great ideas are built on collaboration and sharing, not secrecy and protectiveness. Just like in real life, in hackathons you generally aren’t judged on ideas. You’re judged on what you actually manage to build.

If you want to take part in a student hackathon, take a look at the MLH Season here. There are events across North America (powered by Dell and Windows 10) and Europe. Happy Hacking!



Tim Fogarty
Editor for

Developer Advocate at MongoDB, Previously DevRel at mLab, Commissioner at Major League Hacking. I like to code things.