So you’ve heard of hackathons, maybe you even have friends who have gone, and you’re curious but haven’t taken the plunge yet — why not? I urge you to go as soon as you can, because if you’re interested in technology or a career in this sphere, you can’t afford not to go.
First off, a hackathon isn’t anything illegal and has nothing to do with “hacking” that will get you in trouble. It’s basically a contest or competition in which teams get together and bust their behinds to build a project in a short amount of time, usually over a weekend.
There is often prize money associated with hackathons, but it’s also a great chance to try new things, meet new people, test out some skills and get some more code or experience under your belt for that next job interview.
You need to go to a hackathon because, if you want to work in tech, hackathons are where you get a hands-on view of how tech sausage is made. It’s the extremely abridged version of what it’s like to work in a startup, gives you the chance to perform in several different roles (marketing, designer, coder, user experience, etc.) and whether or not you perform is entirely up to you.
At the end of this experience, you will have learned a lot about yourself, and if nothing else, you’ll know more about what you want to do in tech than you did before. For example, perhaps you think you want to be a coder but have never actually coded — going to a hackathon might help you realize you’re much more interested in design or project management. Maybe you thought coding was too hard for you, but when the judges call your name and you won, you realize that you can actually do this.
Go to a hackathon. Do it.
How do you find out about hackathons? I personally have Google alerts set up, but I also see them periodically on Twitter or Meetups, there are tons of ways to find out, but you have to put yourself in the pathway of discovering them. Follow people on Twitter that tweet about things like that, set up a Google alert, or ask around.
How do you prepare for a hackathon? Read up on what the rules/guidelines will be, if you can find a team of people you know, maybe organize ahead of time, and if you know what the APIs, tools or frameworks are going to be, brush up on those. If you have a team before you head in, start sketching out the basic idea of what you want to build if that’s allowed.
If you don’t have friends who want to go with you, think of this as an opportunity to enjoy being outside of your comfort zone. I’ve made some really great friends by just taking a chance and asking if they wanted to work together, or sit together, or hang out sometime. Get yourself a nametag, add your skills to it, and start glad-handing. Perhaps you’ll meet a team, or perhaps they’ll find you!
Most importantly, though, ask yourself why you’re going to this hackathon:
Do you want to meet people?
Do you want to win?
Do you want to flex your code muscles?
Do you want to make some money?
Do you need code samples for that job you’re applying to?
Do you want to network with a sponsor or showcase a particular framework or technology in a project?
If you can define a few of these goals for yourself ahead of time, you’re practically guaranteed to have a successful experience at a hackathon. You’ll always learn something and grow from a hackathon — but not if you don’t get started and attend your first one.