Hackathon Guide 2020: Learn All About Hackathon Events

VandyHacks Hackathon competition event

What is a “Hackathon”?

All across the world, hackathons are hosted by both corporations and students who are passionate about technology, education, and building. Even absolute beginners can get involved – I, myself, got hooked on Computer Science while attending my first hackathon with no prior experience.

Contrary to what the name suggests, hackathons don’t involve “hacking.” Conversely, hackathons are make-a-thons that take place over the span of a few days. During the event, creative, motivated people of all backgrounds, ages, and experience levels come together to turn their ideas into reality.

Though the word “hack” implies breaking into systems and possibly doing something illegal, the “hack” in a hackathon refers to the project itself. Projects can segue from idea to actualization within as little as 24 hours. In this sense, the “hack” is a newly fleshed out idea - the code will not always be the cleanest, but it will provide insight as to how the idea can be further implemented.

Hackathon Term Disambiguation

  • Hackathon: A codefest where hacks are put together by hackers, a portmanteau of “hack” and “makeathon”
  • Hacking: “Hacking” is the action of putting a project together, not illegally breaking into systems
  • Hack: The “hack” is the project itself, ranging from a VR game to a machine-learning piano keyboard and beyond
  • Hackers: The term “hackers” refers to the hackathon’s attendees who are putting together projects

Learn Content for Hackathons

Many hackathons will host a series of workshops to kick off the event. There are workshops for those with no experience, as well as for experienced developers. For example, VandyHacks at Vanderbilt University provides beginner introductions for topics such as web development and app building, but also offers more advanced topics, such as natural language processing and AR and VR usage. Many hackathons will also have mentors available throughout the event who can help participants with particular technologies and programming languages.

Hackathons are opportunities for communities to come together and bring their creative potential into expression. Learning from others is arguably the most fulfilling part of the process. The projects that come out of hackathons are manifestations of the ability for anybody, from any background, to build and create. The events themselves are a great way to learn how to code and how to develop ideas outside of the classroom.

Prepare for Hackathons

Experience is not required to participate and excel at hackathons. Many winners of previous hackathons have been teams that were composed of first-time hackers from varying schools. Last year at VandyHacks, the grand prize winner was a hardware-based hack that was able to track where people were in a store through sound data. Even more impressive than the hack was the winners’ backgrounds: none of them knew each other before attending VandyHacks, proving they were a truly “hacked” together team.

Picking up some of the aforementioned skills, as well as acquiring foundational experience and securing app ideas could help anybody looking to rapidly ramp up at any future hackathon.

People do not necessarily have to come with ideas, but they should come prepared to learn, meet people, and build! Hackathons are all about connecting with people in a space where interaction is typically mediated over digital communication.

Form Teams at a Hackathon

There is no need to come to a hackathon with a predetermined team. While it’s arguably easier to start working together if you already know your team, hackathons are all about diverse, new people, of different backgrounds, combining their ideas to create something they like. As a result, hackathons typically host brainstorming and team-finding sessions that simultaneously help people begin work on projects and match up groups of people.

For example, a team with an idea to form a web application that helps people manage their pet needs might need a “backend” or a “frontend” team member. The backend is essentially the bulk of where the application does its calculations. The frontend is the appearance of a web app and is responsible for connecting the results of the backend to the rest of the app in a way that it’s accessible for users.

Not everybody needs to know how to program to make a successful project. In fact, diverse backgrounds are excellent for making a team. A hackathon team made up of graphic designers, project managers, or other titles can definitely be successful.

Our aforementioned hypothetical team may be really passionate about creating a database about pet needs to quickly connect users to the information they need, but is unsure of how they want to design or display it. This team would need a frontend person to program the visual side to make their app easy to read and access. It could very well be the other way around, as well – the team may have a great design in mind, but needs someone that’s more passionate and skilled in writing the backend. Hackathons are all about learning new things and trying on new hats. In suit, it is common to form teams of people from different backgrounds simply to experiment with new roles.

Cool Projects that Come Out of Hackathons

Hackathons can be data visualizations, games, teaching tools, and applications that solve problems. Some apps that I’ve personally seen offer free eye tests using machine-learning and computer vision, music games, and hardware to enhance businesses. Others software projects include social media mobile apps designed for both Android and iOS operating systems. Innovation is embedded throughout technology, and hackathons are manifestations of creative energy.

Hackathons are sometimes themed towards a specific goal, such as open source or social good. These types of projects often aim to solve a problem in the world, benefiting others through technology. Other hackathons, such as those hosted by video game companies, are meant for people who are passionate about a certain product and wish to improve it.

Devpost has many projects that were submitted to hackathons across the world. Many of these projects are open-sourced on GitHub, a platform for coders to make their code visible for anyone to see. You can see the results of peoples’ creativity, energy, and time during a hackathon.

Other Activities at Hackathons

There are tons of mini-events that organizers create for their attendees. From karaoke to scavenger hunts, there are plenty of things to do other than hack!

People at hackathons are the best resources to understand the variety of activities that the hackathon provides. Other attendees are oftentimes excellent resources for those of you who are aspiring careers in the Computer Science field, simply looking to debug a particularly tricky bits of code, and also wish to make friends and mentors.

What Makes a Successful Hackathon?

Learning! Producing just a minimum viable product, or MVP, is an incredible achievement. MVPs are essentially a proof-of-concept of your idea, and are used all the time in the actual software development process. Computer programmers are always making incremental changes, and hackathons are excellent ways to get initial knowledge about a topic in which people have interests.

Even after the event ends, the problem-solving techniques learned through debugging challenging problems amid hackathon projects can continue to be useful in fields beyond and beyond computer programming.

Tips for Your First Hackathon

  • Don’t stress!
  • Ask people for help. Organizers, mentors, and sponsors are all here to help you succeed. After all, everybody was in the same beginner state at some point.
  • Google anything and everything, and feel free to use Wikipedia! Oftentimes, someone else will have had the exact same problem at some point in life, and it’s probably on StackOverflow somewhere.
  • Have fun!

What Do You Bring?

  • Laptop
  • Mobile devices
  • Chargers
  • Water bottle
  • Headphones
  • Pillow
  • Sleeping bag (certain hackathons have a sleeping room and/or provide sleeping bags)

Hackathon Logistics

Hackathons can be anywhere from local universities, high schools, and corporations to purely virtual spaces.

Typically, hackathons are completely free! The spirit of hackathons is to provide everybody a shot at making whatever they want. Food, swag, and prizes are all at no cost to hackers. The only potential costs are transportation to the hackathon, though many hackathons offer travel reimbursements, as well.

Organize a Hackathon

If there are no hackathons in the surrounding region, the best move for you may be to organize a hackathon! Several organizations help new budding hackathons in the form of funding, workshops, and assistance.

For a comprehensive guide that breaks down all of the portions that we couldn’t cover in this article, check out this step-by-step hackathon guide. There’s tons of information on how to attract sponsorship, how to cultivate a community, and prepare potential attendees for hackathons.

Get started and good luck!

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