What’s a hackathon, and is it worth your time?

Here's why it's worth giving up a weekend of Netflix to build something

You’re a technologist. You’re busy. You work (or study) hard all week. Why would you want to spend your precious weekend at an event where you work on more tech? Let us explain.

What is a hackathon, anyway?

Let’s start with the basics. A hackathon is an event that often spans 24 to 36 hours, where participants design and build small software or hardware projects. These events will often be focused around a specific theme or set of technologies.

Hackers will generally work in small teams, with the event culminating in a show and tell session where prizes are often awarded. More competitive hacks will give away cash prizes. Almost all of them will have food and drinks on hand. Expect energy drinks to be on offer for hackers aiming to stay awake and coding through the whole event.

What’s in it for me?

Hackathons can be great places to learn things

Working on a development project outside the office gives you a lower-risk setting to experiment with new tools and technologies. Hackathons often have several sponsors representing different APIs, tools or service providers who may offer a prize for the best use of their technologies. If you’re in it to win it, trying to fit as many of these into your hack as possible lets you maximise your prize pool while testing out new tech.

Working with a team also encourages you to try new things with peer support. Everyone brings their own favourite toolkit and process to the hack, letting you explore new tech alongside someone who has used it before. Don’t worry too much about looking unpolished in front of your team. The looming deadline to complete your projects encourages focusing on making something that (mostly) works, distracting you from worrying about the finer details.

Hackathons can be great places to network

Looking for someone to collaborate with on a side project? Or a co-founder for your great startup idea? Or just friends you can make dependency jokes with? Hackathons are an incredible way to fill your networks with like-minded technologists with complementary skills.

Hackathons can help you get jobs

Getting hired for a tech job when you’re just starting out can be challenging. Employers expect a portfolio that demonstrates your work and a CV that fills out a page. Hackathon projects let you add work to your portfolio that shows potential employers what you’ve built with a team with limited time and resources. Plus winning a prize at a hackathon is well worth adding to your CV.

Hackathons are also a common place for tech companies to recruit from. Events with multiple sponsors will give you the best chance to get spotted by a potential employer. If you’re interested in working with one of the sponsors, building with their product and asking them informed questions makes it more likely that you’ll catch their attention.

But… hackathons aren’t perfect

They can be an incredible way to build your skills and portfolio, to network and to catch the eye of employers – but hackathons aren’t for everyone. They’ve evolved their own cultures and aren’t always offering a culture that’s going to be a great fit for all participants.

Hackathons with large cash prizes or focused on prototyping ideas for startups tend to be more fiercely competitive than collaborative. Hackathons with free booze on site can quickly develop into a hard partying atmosphere. Hackathons with an explicit and enforced code of conduct send a strong message about what you can expect at the event. Before picking your first event, think about what’s going to be the best fit for your needs and working style, and ask around.

Ask hard questions about the event before jumping in – organisers are usually happy to answer them. For instance: who gets to keep the code when the hack is finished? If you’re giving up your weekend to participate in a hack, you want to be sure that you’re not being suckered into working for free. If an event wants you to surrender intellectual property rights for your hack, they need to be paying you for your time.

Liked this? Read ‘How to make the transition from learning to code to getting a job.’

All images courtesy of the awesome WOCinTechChat.com

Jessica Rose
About Jessica Rose 10 Articles
Jessica Rose is a self taught technologist obsessed with fostering more equal access to technical education and meaningful work in the tech industry. Equipped with an American accent and based in Blighty, she's always excited to hear about the weird projects people are working on.