This past weekend I attended MHacks, one of the largest student-run hackathons in the world that is sanctioned by MLH. A hackathon is an event that lasts one or more days and allows people interested in computer programming and hardware to get together and build something amazing within the time frame. These projects are fueled by self motivation, collaboration with others, and lots and lots (and lots) of caffeine.
I have been to two hackathons so far, and each time I hear the same question over and over:
What is a hackathon?
Well, it’s very easy to explain what a hackathon is, but to attend a hackathon is so much more than building something within 24 or 36 (or more) hours. Now that you know what they are, you might be wondering what does it mean to attend a hackathon? When someone tells you they went to a hackathon, you can learn a couple things about them:
It means they’re passionate
Hackathons are not a required event. Every person who attends a hackathon does so because they want to. A student who attends an event like this wants to immerse themselves in technology and see what they can accomplish given the time and resources. Regardless of the ulterior benefits such as sponsor prizes, swag, and free food, every student goes to work hard on a project on their own time.
It means they want to do more
I’ve heard many people refer to a college education as enough of a requirement to get a full time job, which is often true. A student can go to a great university or community college, study for a few years and receive a degree in the field, and go out and find a job in software. This isn’t enough for hackers. Hackers value the experience much more than the certification. To reiterate what I said earlier, hackers attend these events on their own time and own self interest to pursue something greater than the education they’re already pursuing.
Beyond the students, I would say their are two other groups of people who attend a hackathon: the sponsors, and the organizers. Many, if not all MLH sanctioned hackathons are free to students, and some even reimburse students who travel long distances. This means that the entire weekend, including all food, swag, prizes, and possibly travel are free. This says so much more about sponsors and organizers than their generosity.
It means they care about the future
Sponsors will typically send mentors/engineers who stay up for most of the weekend just like the students. They volunteer their time and a good nights sleep to help students achieve something great, and to make sure they have a good time while doing it. An event such as a hackathon allows students, as I said earlier, the chance to learn so much more than they do inside the classroom. Attending this event gives students the chance to learn unique skills that they might not have learned otherwise, and giving them an extra advantage for changing the world when they go into the workforce. This opportunity couldn’t be possible without the help of sponsors and organizers who make the event run smoothly, and be fun and affordable for students who want to attend them.
If you’re a student reading this, you might still be wondering what the hackathon means for you. Sure, it means you’re passionate, aspiring, and care about the future, but if you’re applying to a hackathon then you already know all of that. Chances are you already knew that you’d get free food, swag, and networking opportunities. But if you haven’t been to one, or haven’t quite figured out it’s significance, here is what a hackathon means to me.
It means you’re not alone in your interests
It is easy to feel lost in your struggles of programming when you have a bug and you don’t know who to turn to if your close friends aren’t programmers. No one understands half of the words you’re saying, let alone understanding the problem and how to fix it. This doesn’t happen at a hackathon; You are surrounding yourself with like minded people who are working and facing the very same problems you are. You can finally walk up to someone and explain that weird null pointer exception you get.
It means you are extraordinary
According to a guide by MLH, 50,000 students will attend hackathons at over 150 sanctioned events during the 2015-2016 school year, ranging from high school to college students. During the time it takes those 50,000 to complete their education, many more than that will graduate with a degree in computer science or a related field. At the time of your graduation, you will be a part of a minority of students who experienced a hackathon. This is something to be proud of; Simply by attending the event you’ve shown that you are more than just a student, but that you have a passion for your field and a strong interest in using it to improve the future.