Hackathons: A Student Perspective

Ever since the first hackathon I went to at the University of Virginia over a year ago, I saw its value. I had no idea what I was going to do and didn’t really have an idea until 6 or 7 hours into the 36-hour event. Throughout the entire period, I got stuck over a dozen times but was always able keep going thanks to the help of one particular developer evangelist I met there. By the end of the event, I had consumed countless red bulls, coffees, and snacks just to keep myself going but it was worth it. I had won the award for best use of the Kloudless API (the company’s API that sponsored the prize) and got to walk away with an AR Drone. A few weeks later, I was proposing the idea of hosting our own hackathon at my school to the chair of the Computer Science Department. I had never been more inspired.

What Is a Hackathon?

In its rawest form, a hackathon is an event where a participant comes in with an idea and leaves with a working prototype. Just a few short years ago, the concept of hackathons were just emerging, with a few colleges spearheading the movement. Today, hundreds of schools in the United States have hosted their own hackathons, with colleges in Europe and Asia participating as well, all under the Major League Hacking Organization.

Benefits of Hackathons

The benefits for the student are countless. In short, it is an opportunity to build one’s portfolio of projects and effectively use what they have been learning in school in an applied setting where they have a time limit to get something working. This is all done while receiving enormous exposure to potential employers, who are the ones who fund the hackathons and want to get to know students and other professionals on a personal level.

Why Are Hackathons Growing?

Students, schools, and industry leaders all benefit immensely from hackathons. Unlike career fairs and simply sending in college applications, this is a chance for employers to get to meet hundreds of students and see what they can do in 24-48 hours, rather than seeing it listed out on a sheet of paper.

Students get the industry exposure that they would otherwise have to spend in less natural (and slightly awkward) settings like career fairs. Often, recruiters don’t have the technical background to have a meaningful and deep conversation needed to fully understand your area of expertise. Conversely, at these hackathons, companies often send some of their strongest technology gurus to bond and assist students in their projects. This forms a deeper knowledge and relationship between the two parties that would not otherwise be possible.

How Are Hackathons Changing the Future?

It is no surprise that the number of hackathons has been doubling ever since they were introduced a few years ago. In fact, now most hackathons aren’t limited to college students in the United States. All over the world, high school students, older professionals, and even people that have never encountered using technology before are all becoming more involved in the hackathon culture. As hackathons become more universal, so too does the focus of using them as a means to give back to the community and become more than just about technology.