After answering this question 23897693621 times on the MLH Discord server, I've finally decided to compile a FAQ of sorts, including my experiences, into this blog post. Towards the end, I'll also talk about how hackathons have transitioned from in-person to digital, and the pros and cons of digital hackathons.
To start with - What even IS a hackathon?
Simply put, hackathons are 24, 36, or 48 hour-long (sometimes longer, but very rarely) technology festivals. They’re somewhere you can meet like-minded people, learn new things, and create cool technology. They can sound pretty intimidating - but you don’t have to be some sort of genius or a coding pro to take part.
Despite the name, hackathons are not places where people gather to hack in the conventional sense of the word. Make-a-thons would be a more appropriate name, and these are basically competitions where participants ('hackers') hack together a minimum viable solution to a problem they see or face.
There are primarily six different reasons people attend hackathons -
Free Food and Accomodation: In-person hackathons usually give you free food and accommodation for the duration it's running. The quality and quantity can vary wildly based on the hackathon you're attending, but you know, don't look a gift horse in the mouth :P. Some events even organize transport or (if you’re lucky) offer some travel reimbursements.
Free Swag: Again, when you attend in-person hackathons, you get swag very literally thrown at you. This can range from pens, stickers, and lanyards to shirts and hoodies. I personally know people who've walked out of prominent hackathons like HackGT and HackMIT with an entirely new wardrobe.
Networking: I cannot impress upon the reader enough how amazing hackathons can be in terms of networking opportunities. You could walk into one all alone, and over the course of a couple of days, make lifelong like-minded friends that, very much like you, love building cool shit. Personally, I've found this to be the case, even more, mentoring at hackathons.
Segueing into my fourth point, how do you think these hackathons are able to throw so much free stuff at you? There are two parts to this:
- Organizations like MLH help support them with the help of partners.
- Sponsors, sponsors, more sponsors. While some of these sponsors are interested in advertising to the attending hackers, others are there to recruit. Think about it - at a hackathon, you've got bright people that are into tech, and motivated enough to spend their weekend building cool stuff. Who wouldn't want to scout at hackathons?
- These hackathons often collect resumes from hackers to share with recruiters at the event, and some of the prizes can also be in the form of internships or job opportunities with the sponsors.
Learning and Upskilling: In addition to learning by building with cool technologies, most hackathons also organize workshops in new and emerging tech, and this can be a great opportunity to learn!
And last but definitely not least, the experience. Whether or not you win, hackathons are amazing experiences and unforgettable weekends of fun. 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!
Do I need to be a pro at coding to attend?
Nope. Plenty of hackathons encourage no-code or hardware hacks (using platforms like Webflow or Arduino). In addition, there are a lot of other useful things you could do, like design, demoing, planning, etc.
In addition, keep in mind that you probably are not going to win at your first hackathon. These are gradual learning experiences that will accumulate as time goes on.
Remember, everyone starts out a beginner.
It's my first time at a hackathon, what do I do?
If you're attending an in-person hackathon, the first thing for you to do is grab some food and socialize. Talk to people, form a team if you don't have one already, grab some swag, and just have some fun until hacking begins.
Now, I highly encourage you to build something and demo at a hackathon - the experience itself is exhilarating, and each hackathon you do this at only compounds your skills.
However, there are a lot of other worthwhile things you could do at a hackathon - namely, attend any career fairs/workshops that they might have, or participate in mini-events and just revel in the experience.
I'm confused, how do I get started on a project for a hackathon?
Different hackathons have different rules. Point number 1 is to pay heed to these. Almost all hackathons explicitly forbid projects that you start before the hacking period begins, so you definitely want to stay away from that.
Apart from the main prizes / tracks, there are also side tracks like "Best Hardware Hack" or "Best Use of Google Cloud", that could narrow down your field of vision to make it easier to brainstorm something.
The theme of a hackathon is normally optional to stick to, but if it has different tracks, you should definitely talk to an organizer / mentor - they're there to help!
How has going digital affected hackathons?
As with everything else in life, there are pros and cons to this. On one hand, going digital has enabled people to check in and hack at hackathons regardless of their location, and it has greatly widened the scope of networking - it's far easier for you to now build an international network at hackathons now!
On the other hand, it's made it incredibly difficult for you to now get swag and prizes. Oftentimes, the cost of shipping swag can far exceed the value of the swag itself! Now you know why getting shirts from online hackathons is so difficult :P