Hackathons @ Arizona State University

The number of hackathons in and around the university have seen a major increase in the past few years mostly due to the hype around it globally but also due to ASU’s effort as a whole to push the entrepreneurship experience and ecosystem in the university.

When I first arrived in August 2014, there were only 2 hackathons (Hacks4Humanity, PayPal OHack) and Startup Weekend Phoenix around the area for the entire academic year. Fast forward to the current academic year schedule, 3 hackathons / make-a-thons already happened in the past 5 months and at least 4 more are scheduled for the next few months. This does not even include the community held hackathons outside the university!

What / Where are they?

“A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including subject-matter-experts, collaborate intensively on software projects.” -Wikipedia

In case you are still confused, check out this article by Dave Fontenot that provides a better picture of what is it about. TL:DR, a bunch of people coming together for an entire weekend to build something cool.

I will start with the annually held hackathon :

Group photo from the first ever Hacks4Humanity in 2014 (I’m in the photo, spot me if you can!)

Hacks for Humanity by Project Humanities (Fall semester)

Unlike most of the other hackathons, the focus of this hackathon is to create something that is aligned with at least 3 of the 7 principles of humanity. The hackathon usually goes on for 36 hours accompanied by workshops on different topics ranging from prototyping, designing, developing and eventually to pitching. There is no admission fee and all meals throughout the event are covered by the organizers (read: sponsors).

Last year, they had also shifted their focus to include more elements of entrepreneurship. During the hackathon, many of the on site mentors are actual entrepreneurs running a day-to-day startup. This doesn’t stop there, they even provide mentorship through the ASU mentor network for the winning teams to continue working on developing their projects after the hackathon ended.

Hacks for Humanity is usually held annually between the month of September and October so definitely look out for them.

Opportunity Hack by PayPal (Fall semester)

This hackathon is mainly organized by PayPal as one of their ways to serve the local community where teams work to help local non-profits to solve their problems through technology. Do note that the solutions are all under the hackathon specific github organization.

As you might expect, winning teams will not only get cash prizes (that has to be transferred through your PayPal account) but also promise you an interview opportunity with the College Recruiting teams at PayPal!

The hackathon runs for a little over 24 hours from Saturday before noon throughout the night till Sunday afternoon. As usual, the admission is free and all meals are covered for the entire period of time.

Opportunity Hack is usually held at PayPal’s office in Chandler (except last year in TechShop that is also in Chandler). If you have transportation to get you there or have some free time over the weekend, I would definitely recommend participating.

Photo taken from Fulton Furnace Fallout official photo album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/130759293@N08/30423506832/

Devils Invent by Fulton School Startup Center (Multiple times each semester)

Devils Invent is a program put up by the Startup Center in Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. Currently, they are organizing at least 2 events per semester and is looking to possibly add more. Unlike the usual hackathons, the Devils Invent position itself more as a “inventathon” or a solution design challenge. Despite being organized by the engineering school, it welcomes students of all background to participate in it.

For each event, it would be given a certain theme and an attempt to help solve the underlying problems in that specific area. Over the course of the event, there will be multiple mentors from relevant field of expertise showing up from time to time to help participants with their problems.

As of right now, the next scheduled Devils Invent is on February 17 – 19 with the theme of Healthcare at ECG Tempe campus followed by a Humanitarian-Centered Design Challenge at Polytechnic campus on March 31 – April 2. Further details are yet to be announced for the later event so pay close attention to the Devils Invent website if you are interest.

Hack Arizona in University of Arizona (Spring semester)

Most likely the largest hackathon in the Southwest but definitely the largest one in Arizona. With a crowd of over 800 participants over the weekend, the hackathon is able to produce some really amazing products.

Aside from the usual workshops seen in many hackathons, there are also many other fun events like Smash Bros Melee Tournament, Arm Wrestling, Scavenger Hunt and even a Karaoke sessions being schedule throughout the event.

Since this article is about “Hackathon @ ASU”, I would also like to add that SoDA (Software Developers Association) of ASU that is based in the Tempe campus usually provides buses that help facilitate students traveling to Tucson from the Tempe campus.

Hack Arizona is usually held around mid to late January every year. In my personal opinion this is a must go hackathon if you want to be surrounded by as many like minded people as possible.

Photo taken from Coplex Twitter: https://twitter.com/hellocoplex/status/663884029318533120

CodeDay Phoenix (Spring & Fall semester)

CodeDay is mostly focused on high school and/or first time hackathon goers. Despite what the organization says in its website (“we do not consider CodeDay a hackathon, even if it meets the technical definition”), I figured CodeDay is more like a hackathon than it is not therefore I included it in this section of the article.

While the prizes provided might not be as attractive as the other hackathons in town, it is definitely a good place to start for first timers to get a grasp on how it feels to be in a hackathon. The event focuses more on celebrating the success of the participants and the ideology behind each and every projects. Usually all the teams will get a chance to present in front of all the other participants.

CodeDay Phoenix usually takes place twice a year, once on each semester. The next one will be on Feb 18–19. If you have the weekend to spare, definitely check it out! The food and drinks itself over the weekend will easily cover for the admission fee. However, if you are a ninja hackathon hacker, I would recommend you to sign up as a volunteer / mentor for the event. You will definitely learn a lot more about different problem solving approaches and thought process than just hacking away. It would also be a satisfying feat to teach and help others in overcoming their hurdles.


Aside from all above mentioned annual hackathons, the following includes some of the hackathons that will be held for the first time this year in or around ASU :

EmergenTech.io (24–26 Mar 2017)

As its name suggests, the event takes place focusing specifically on emerging and upcoming technologies (such as Mixed Reality, Blockchain etc) so that participants have the opportunity to work with these fairly new technologies that they usually would not have the opportunity to. That aside, the hackathon itself also incorporates the pitch competition idea where teams have to conduct relevant market research on the ideas they are working on.

Despite having no restrictions on team formation aside from having 3 — 5 members each, it is highly encouraged for each team to be well-rounded with developers, designers, entrepreneurs and marketers altogether. The judging on the project does not only look at the finished product developed by the team but also its UI/UX, business values and potential market.

It will be taking place on 24–26 March 2017, on campus at College Avenue Commons. If you are looking into learning and trying something new, this is definitely the place to be! In case you are afraid that your lack of knowledge and experience on those specific topics will limit your ability, there are also many workshops scheduled around these niche and new emerging technologies by each of their domain experts.

Desert Hacks (25–26 Feb 2017)

It all begins with a group of ASU students coming together to realize that as one of the largest university in the US, there isn’t a heavily hardware-software centric, tech-focused hackathon being organized in the university. Even when there is something along that line, it is usually just a coding competition to solve some programming questions or an entrepreneurship focused startup competition where programming is just a nice to have skill.

The team also strongly believed that hackathon is a place or more like a space that can help brings a community together, specifically a tech-driven community that is lacking locally. Aside from that, as they are not directly affiliated with the university (and will be taking place outside of the university itself), the organizing team is also envisioning that students will go out of their “university bubble” and be more active in hanging out and working out some cool projects outside of the university space.

Although this might be the first hackathon the team is putting up, I would highly encourage everyone to participate not only for the hackathon experience and its tech-oriented focus but this is also a great opportunity to check out the newly opened Galvanize campus. As stated above, it will be on 25–26 February at Phoenix, AZ. The admission is free for all along with free foods, drinks and swags throughout the event.

SouthWest Hacks by SoDA (10–12 Mar 2017)

As previously mentioned, SoDA is a student organization based in the ASU Tempe campus mostly to facilitate students majoring in Computer Science, Software Engineering and similar majors.

Unlike Desert Hacks, since the team putting up the SWHacks is directly affiliated to the university, it will also be the first MLH hackathon to take place on the ASU Campus. As SoDA is one of the most popular student organizations in ASU, it is expected that this event will also have a high participation rate.

It will be taking place in Memorial Union, ASU Tempe campus on 10–12 March. They welcome everyone above the age of 18 to participate in the hackathon and I definitely recommend you to be there!


Why support these two new hackathons in ASU?

ASU has been severely lacking MLH sponsored hackathons for years so be it Desert Hacks or Southwest Hacks, we should show the team behind it that we support the cause of it. Not only would this help encourage these group of people to continue putting the hackathons up for next year but it also sends a message to the university that this is the kind of hackathons the students are looking to participate in.

I’ll go further into this later but personally, I’ve known many ASU students (including myself) who have been flying all over the US or even all the way to Europe to participate in this sort of large scale tech-oriented hackathons. For years, that has been the only option available until Hack Arizona happened.

Even then, it would be really beneficial for freshman / sophomore students who had never been to a hackathon before to have this kind of experience at a familiar experience instead of flying couple of hours away just to realize the kind of skills that they are severely lacking to be able to contribute at a hackathon. These are some of the very real experiences that can be valuable even for someone who had already graduated from college as none of the problems you’ll be facing in a hackathon is actually covered in your degree program.

I’m not here to blame that the degree program in school is not working properly but rather it was designed to fit the model of the industry where you will most likely be working on a small part of the project. On the other hand, a hackathon is a test on how quickly you can put out a decently good looking and usable application to test and prove the feasibility of an idea. Comparatively, a hackathon requires more flexibility and a broader range of skills and coverage but less attention to details.


Not the same but similar

Aside from hackathons, there are other weekend long events that have slightly different focuses.

Photo taken from StartupWeekend Phoenix Twitter: https://twitter.com/swphx/status/799854973022453760

StartupWeekend Phoenix

Unlike hackathons, Startup Weekend is very consumer centric. It is less about how pretty or amazing your app is but more about how much had you achieved overall as a “startup” over the weekend (54 hours).

So aside from how developed your product is, spend more time on “How much market research have you conducted?”, or even better “How many alpha / beta testers have you acquired? And what are their feedbacks?” etc. Essentially, it can be very much about problem solving and if it is an actual problem or just an imaginary one that isn’t actually as painful as you initially imagined.

As a way to filter out less serious participants, they do usually requires a registration fee of $50. If you ever aspire to run your own company or wanting to know how it is like to work in a very early stage startup, this weekend serves as a summary version of it. Along with the mentors who are day-to-day entrepreneurs running successful startups, I would say that the experience itself is very much worth the $50 registration fees.

Global Game Jam Phoenix

Essentially, it is just like a hackathon except it only focuses on building games. It is typically a 48 hours long game creation event that kickoff on Friday evening with movies and keynote speeches and ends on Sunday afternoon. If you love playing games, you should at least participate in this once. Speaking from experience, you will eventually hate the game you created because of the amount of time you spent alpha-testing that game.

GGJ usually takes place on mid to late January and is definitely a fun-filled experience not only in building and playing your own games but also to play the games other teams had built over the weekend.


Beyond Arizona

All of the hackathons listed here are hosted in Arizona. However, that should not be stopping you from attempting to participate in hackathons outside of the state. Personally, I have had the opportunity to travel to many different states to participate in hackathons thanks to their travel reimbursement policy. In just the 2 weeks I spent writing this article, I have been to both SpartaHack in Michigan and MinneHack in Minnesota. I would definitely recommend everyone to look out for them.

I do personally manually maintain a list of hackathons happening all over the places *shameless plug* here so do check it out. Of course, there are also other resources out there including (but not limited to) MLH official website and Hackalist.

Let me know in the comments below if you find any other interesting website that shows a collection of hackathons.


About myself

I’m BinHong, currently a senior majoring in Software Engineering at Arizona State University.

I was part of the team that built this in Global Game Jam Penang 2014, the team that won Hacks4Humanity 2014 and also the team that came in second in Startup Weekend Phoenix 2015.

Personally, I was also a mentor at both Hacks for Humanity and Fulton Furnace Fallout in the past year.

Disclaimer: All photos and logos used in the article are trademarks of their respective organizations. The permission to use was given to me in either verbal and conversational fashion. If you find anything disturbing about yourself that you wish to be taken down, please contact me.