What is a hackathon? Examples, benefits, and opportunities!

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When we hear the words “hack” or “hacker,” what meaning comes to mind? Probably a slew of conflicting images. Hack, like “life hack”: faster, more streamlined ways of accomplishing daily tasks. You know, working smarter, not harder.

But “hacker”?

Doesn’t that have to do with breaking/ breaking into things online? Or maybe that scene in The Social Network of college kids vying for a spot at Facebook? 

The truth is, all of the above comes into play in today’s “hackathon” phenomenon.

What is a hackathon?

A hackathon is an event designed to use technology, primarily coding, to accomplish an objective. There’s no question that hackathons have taken the world by storm, spurring the development of everyday products and moving millions of dollars. And with the rise of hackathons for beginners and availability of online hacking classes (ethical hacking, of course), it's never been easier to get started!

Hackathon examples

In their natural habitat, wherever programming drives innovation, that is, hackathons can be classified into three main subspecies:

Competitive hackathons

Picture dozens (sometimes hundreds, if not thousands) of programmers hunched over laptops for a marathon of coding, working solo or in teams to crack a set challenge or create a product. Over the course of 24-48 hours, prize money, highly competitive jobs and internships, and/or bragging rights are at stake. 

Sponsored hackathons

Universities, Fortune 500 companies, and nonprofits alike host hackathons to recruit top talent, solve problems great and small, grow their business, or simply bring like minds together to code. 

Internal hackathons

A growing number of organizations utilize hackathons within their teams. True to their origins, these hackathons are often designed to shake things up, rapidly iterate products, and expedite creative problem solving.

There's plenty of cross-pollination among each type of hackathon. A collegiate hackathon might entail the ultimate 21st century game of capture the flag: one team of cybersecurity students hacking their opponents’ server for pride and glory, plus a potential prestigious summer internship.

Meanwhile, organizations like AngelHack, backed by big names like IBM and Amazon, host competitive hackathons for $10,000 prizes. Such events not only offer prime networking for professional programmers, they often feature an even more coveted prize: the chance to take a killer startup concept and rocket-launch it into existence. 

As a movement, hackathons are rooted in the fact that technology defines the modern world, and that the global language for change is often written in lines of code.

We happen to be firm believers in this idea, which is why iD Tech offers a course in cybersecurity and encryption, one of the most common hackathon formats. (And to keep up with the growing number of design hackathons, we also offer a  Unity course that simulates true hackathon awesomeness.) 

Hackathons are a big deal...

In its purest form, a hackathon establishes the ideal environment for creating and refining great ideas. Think about it. Nothing jumpstarts the creative process quite like these words:

“On your marks, get set, go!” 

And that is exactly what a hackathon does.

The most legendary results of these time-sensitive incubators have, in the space of 24 hours, accomplished what might have taken months of trial and error. Hasbro toys famously created 45 products over the course of just one hackathon. Household names like GroupMe and WorkFlow have emerged from hackathons, and in GroupMe’s case, led to a $85 million acquisition from Microsoft. 

Luckily for us, hackathons often have one key audience in mind: the user.

For instance, if you’ve ever “liked” a Facebook post, used the site’s “donate” feature for a great cause, or breathed a sigh of relief to see a friend marked “safe” during a natural disaster, you can thank an internal hackathon for that.

Other platforms are taking user-friendliness to the next level as they lend their API’s to crowdsourced programmers. With fresh eyes, companies like PayPal and Foursquare can expand their applications, tackle major world issues, provide educational resources, or simply help users find a great restaurant. 

In short, hackathons have come a long way from Mark Zuckerberg’s basement.

The major players know what we know: stale ideas and stagnation are no match for hack culture. When they embrace the benefits of iteration and innovation, the world sits up and pays attention, and so do we. Not even a global pandemic can quash their innovative spirit and inherent versatility; naturally, a virtual hack for in-person hackathons has already been perfected many times over. 

The benefits of hackathons

The benefits of hackathons hardly end with cool products and nifty website features...

Hackathons kickstart careers

Many a career has been kickstarted by a hackathon: no schmoozing, no fancy workshops: what you see is what you get.

Plenty of cutting edge companies have caught onto this. Google’s legendary coding Jam, for instance, is just one of many opportunities for young coders to get their foot in the door and impress some pretty impressive people. 

Hackathons inspire teamwork 

If there’s a more comprehensive test of skill in this field, we’d love to hear about it. After all, many  hackathons are essentially a live study in cooperative learning and teamwork, skills increasingly in demand. They take the stereotype of the lone genius and flip it on its head.

With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that 30.3% of all hackathons take place on college campuses. Students have the opportunity to learn while trying their hands at a professional-level process. 

Hackathons encourage diversity & affect positive change 

Hackathons also drive change not just in what programmers do, but who is represented in tech.

Values of diversity and inclusion are becoming increasingly apparent in hackathon culture; more and more events are focusing on diverse demographics. On both the national and global stage, hackathons by and for women and people of color are forging a path to narrowing representation gaps in the industry.

These events are powerful drivers for change, and the world will be a much better, more equitable place because of their impact. 

Recent hackathon news

And, just because sometimes it's helpful to dig into the real world to gain a better understanding, here are some recent hackathon headlines. 

Florida Atlantic University FAU Teams Win at Florida Food Future Hackathon

The Food Future Hack took place in mid-March, challenging participants to come up with innovative new ways to "prevent global food excess." Among the winners were Scrap Saver ("Best Tech") and Lucky Pup Chow ("Best Overall Idea"), which were submitted by teams of students from Florida Atlantic University

Food Supply Chain App Wins Digital Ag Hackathon

More food news (and for good reason)! The Cornell Institute for Digital Agriculture (CIDA) Hackathon took place in early March, bringing together 32 teams of a total of 176 students, and unfolding over a 36-hour period. The winner? An idea that applied data science to tackle the challenge of food spoiling from farm to market. 

Wayland High's Computer Science Club Will hold Hackathon Focused on How to Improve Remote Learning

And while hearing about college students successfully completing these recent hackathons is incredibly inspiring, how about everyday high school students? Tackling something many of us have had our fair share of experience with this past year, remote learning, students had to build a prototype (app, game, website, or device) to help those who struggle with remote learning in an attempt to improve their experiences. 

All in all, the above examples each touch on the benefit and value of hackathons—bringing teams together to affect change. Sure, issues and problems are great to talk about and require deep thinking and discourse, but there is no replacing dedicated hands-on work building something - even if only an idea or prototype - to spark progress. 

What’s next? Are there hackathons for kids? 

These days, it’s easy for kids of all ages to dive into exciting challenges in technology. And yes, that includes beginner-level hackathons! Platforms like Hackathon Jr and CEL Kids are great places for kids to test out their skills in engaging, age-appropriate settings. 

We know from experience that hackathons provide the ideal outlet for young programmers.

Avi Schiffman, one of our very own, got his start first at iD Tech, then through hackathons, and used his skills to create a COVID-19 tracking website utilized by millions of people. Like Avi, it’s great to have some coding experience before entering the hackathon arena.

Our online private lessons and after-school small group programs are perfect options to get started or to sharpen the skills kids and teens need for hackathon challenges. There’s no telling where that spark might lead! 

After all, a hackathon is so much more than a weekend of nonstop programming; hack culture is a state of mind and commitment to bringing fantastic ideas into fruition. We know that hack culture is just beginning to pick up steam, and we can’t wait to see what our campers accomplish. 

A photo of Virginia

Virginia started with iD Tech at the University of Denver in 2015 and has loved every minute since then! A former teacher by trade, she has a master's in education and loves working to embolden the next generation through STEM. Outside the office, you can usually find her reading a good book, struggling on a yoga mat, or exploring the Rocky Mountains. 

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