The ultimate hackathon survival guide

Veteran hackers offer advice on how to approach attending the contests.

hackathon
Andrew Eland (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Name a city, pick a date, and you’ll likely find a nearby hackathon, whether you’re in Des Moines, Iowa, or Yerevan, Armenia.

Major League Hacking lists over 100 hackathons held in 2015 at a college or university, while Hacker League lists an additional 200-plus hosted by corporations and other organizations. Some hackathons are virtual and conducted on the Web, and there’s even a three-day event that takes place on a bus.

If you’ve never attended one, however, it can seem like a daunting endeavor, with the all-night coding sessions, over-caffeinated attendees, pressure to produce under time constraints and the niggling fear that you’re not skilled enough.

But the advice from veteran attendees is to just do it – not only is there an event for everyone’s tastes, but the benefits of attending far outweigh the concerns and effort of going. Here are a few tips on how to gear up for and survive your first hackathon.

Know why you’re going

Although hackathons have been known to generate new features and functions for the likes of Facebook, and even spurred successful startups, those outcomes are rare and should not be the main reason for attending, says Joshua Tauberer, founder of Govtrack and a frequent hackathon attendee and host. In fact, while most hackathons end with a showcase of the work accomplished, the end product is not necessarily the main point.

“Organizations often bill these events as ‘We’re going to do something,’ but that’s not the primary benefit they have,” Tauberer says. “It’s great to accomplish something, but the biggest benefit is usually that people learn things, whether a new technology or skill, domain knowledge or how a particular industry works.” The fact is, the 24- or 36-hour timeframe of a hackathon is “simply not enough time to produce anything close to a working product,” he says. “I might put in eight hours of work on something, but it’s part of a bigger project I’m committed to beyond the hackathon.” Hackathons should be seen as a way to make real progress toward understanding and learning, he says, not creating a solution.

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That has been the case for Amit Desai, a software engineer at a large e-commerce company, who has been coding for 10 years and attended his first hackathon in 2013. Desai seeks out hardware-oriented events that concentrate on technology such as drones and 3-D printing. “In my day-to-day work, I would never get a chance to work on this stuff,” he says.

These events can also help IT professionals hone existing skills, says Asheik Hussain, software engineer at Intelligent Product Solutions. “Everyone uses the latest and greatest advances in technology, and it helps you keep up with the latest trends,” he says. Because his work at IPS is focused on designing next-generation products for clients, “hackathons make a lot of sense for me because they sharpen my programming skills and give me the chance to work with other best-in-class software engineers."

Networking is another benefit, Hussain adds, especially at corporate-sponsored events. “They can be a great opportunity to land a job if you are able to impress the corporate sponsors with your hack. Most companies desire people who have a drive/desire to innovate and learn new ideas.”

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Hackathons can also provide a concentrated timeframe in which to work on an idea, project or skill that you wouldn’t have the discipline to focus on in your day-to-day life, Desai says. Even better, you can pursue that idea with like-minded people who apply their own skills to the project. “You might leave the event with a basic wireframe for an application,” he says, which you can continue to work on or pick up on again at a future event.

Just as fame is not a feasible goal for attending a hackathon, neither is fortune, frequent attendees say. While the prize money can be substantial, Hussain and others recommend choosing an event based on your interest in the topic, not the award.

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