Hackathons: What, When and Why?

6 min

As an opener: this article targets those who are considering applying for their first hackathon, but it would be great if old hand participants write some comments about their hackathon experience.

Hackathon is a type of event for developers or the other passionate, which has deeply rooted in the local market. They all started as student events, but over time, the classic hackathon has ceased to be an entertainment just for the undergraduates. Although at MIT annual gatherings with hundreds of participants, students are still warmly welcomed.

Something similar happened with a horizontal extension of the topic. The original word “hackathon” is made up of “hack” and “marathon,” but with time the goal of the meeting shifted from coding to marketing pitch creation, to presentation of an educational concept, or a completed different-purpose product. Sometimes such sessions are also called ideatons.

The tight deadlines turned out to be such a powerful motivator for action and ideas that corporations decided to borrow the practice. And it became common these days to have a full-fledged product in the software lineup that was “born” during one of the internal hackathons.

Well, the advantage for the company is clear. But why do people annually participate in this kind of events?

The root cause is excitement, what is called the vibe, i.e. special mood, the atmosphere the participants dive in. Of course, it’s nice to compete and get one of the main prizes at the end. As a rule, this is hardware or a monetary reward. And, in the future, the opportunity to receive a grant to develop the prototype.

Hackathons for the career

There is this hot-button dilemma: you can’t get a job without experience, and can’t get experience without a job. IT hackathons is a way to enter the profession and get experience in a matter of hours, not months.

Why so? For an experienced recruiter, participation in a hackathon means that you are able to work in a team, not scared of workload and stressful situations, and have self-management skills. And that you will progress faster in your career if started practising in the right way.

And, of course, it’s worth considering HR-hackathons, where participants compete for being hired or for a place in a specific project. Typically, such events are announced on industry-specific portals. In Ukraine it is DOU.

How to take part?

Perhaps the company, by which you want to be employed, organises its own “technology races”. However, corporate “competition” is not the only chance to find a job. Large companies often support general-topic hackathons, thus keeping an eye on young and promising talents.

So what do you actually need? Examine the calendar of events for the next six months. Why this long? Firstly, registration usually does not close a day before. Many organizers want to have the participants list in hand a few months before the start. Basically, in March you need to keep an eye on May-June events.

Secondly, you need to assemble a team, usually, 2 to 4 participants (it turns to be the most efficient group). An alternative option is to spread a word among friends and non-friends. Believe me, you have never experienced better networking!

Thirdly, you need to prepare for a hackathon. At the very least, contemplate the product idea (as you will know the area of product application in advance.)

No other preparation is needed: the organizers usually arrange snacks and water. The canonical format of 24 hours behind closed doors is replaced by shift work so that you can take a shower and sleep before a new call.

Topic-specific events

In recent years, the hackathon organizers began to actively promote the idea of women in tech, to make it easier to get acquainted with like-minded people. In 2019/2020, even special categories were introduced, like people with disabilities, gender minorities, younger or elder people. The topics are even more diverse: blockchain hackathons, “hacking” security systems, helping the environment, building solutions for smart city, e-learning, individual transport. Such projects are nice to have in your portfolio. And victory will bring many acquaintances and opportunities.

IoT Hackathons

The organizers’ standard requirement is to have a laptop with admin access. Sets of technical devices are given at the location (so that everyone could start off with a level playing field).

According to the participants’ feedback, one of the contest biggest delights is to work with devices made by manufacturers like Cisco, Siemens, etc. Another one is to try yourself in the hardware without any special preparation since the requirements to qualification are usually NOT strict.

The largest European event is the Bosch Open World (February 17-19, 2020).

Data Science events

Datatons are mainly devoted to models building and visualizations. This is a good chance to “play” with specialized software from leading BI, GIS, CAD vendors. It’s just an enterprise-level account with full feature set may not be not easy on the pocket

Game Design

Here teams are struggling to create the game prototype. Game jams often break records by the number of participants.

It’s not surprising, because one of the formats allows participation from home in a pyjamas. Ludum Dare is designed as an online format.

Another possible reason is the number of nominations a game can win. This is far from a linear struggle for first place.

Multimedia events

It is a happy hunting ground for those who are passionate about journalism, the media business and cultural issues. It is interesting that all decisions must certainly be tied to the needs of society and business (even if it refers to how to play around with cultural heritage, as it will be in March on the ideaton in Slovenia). You can compete in more technical categories like “Innovations”, and in the field of content - from mobile to large screens.

Famous hackathons

One of the largest private hackathons in the world is an online event hosted by Microsoft. In 2017 it gathered 18 thousand participants from 400 countries of the world.

Eighteen thousand? Global Game Jam only condescends to this number. Game designers marathon gathers about 50,000 people. By the way, in 2020, Ukrainians could participate locally (for example, at KNU), practically in all large cities.

What to put in the calendar?

If to list all the events, then this article will be endless, so here are just a few practical tips.

  1. Search by location.You could hardly google a user-friendly list of hackathons, but if you visit Eventbrite, there will be a calendar with a description of each event.
  2. Plan ahead. IoT and DataScience events require the project submission in 1-3 months before the start.
  3. Online hackathon needs a stable communication channel. It is worth hammering out a B plan in case something goes wrong with your internet provider.
  4. If you are participating in a hackathon abroad, most likely after the “delivery” of the results, you will need to pitch and present your product.Therefore, plan your time accordingly, take an extra day, so you will need to leave everything and rush to the airport.

It doesn’t matter where your head lies right now: developing smart devices, media or social hackathons - it’s worth a try, anyway.

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