I decided to compete at my first hackathon on a whim. After first hearing about them from older friends, I never intended to attend one because they seemed extremely daunting, time-consuming, and intense.
However, I recently decided to step outside my comfort zone and participated in Superposition V, the Bay Area's largest all-women & non-binary hackathon.
I went in with barely six months of coding experience, zero knowledge about pitching, and no ideas for a final product. I honestly didn't even expect to submit a project, let alone receive a prize, so I was extremely surprised when I found out that I had won “Most Creative” for my environmental education memory match game.
Whether you have years of programming knowledge or none, hackathons are a place for everyone to learn, meet new people, and listen to powerful speakers.
What is a Hackathon?
No, a hackathon doesn't actually involve hacking! Rather, a hackathon is a programming competition where teams create projects. Sometimes, there will be a certain prompt or set of prompts to follow. For example, the main theme of Superposition V was #BreakingBoundaries, and there were also four themed tracks of female empowerment, Edtech, sustainability, and inclusivity.
Most hackathons range from 12 to 48 hours and are jam-packed with workshops, networking, talks by prominent individuals, and much more. This means that you will probably be constantly either working or attending events, which leaves very little time for rest.
Hackathons feature a variety of prizes, from gift cards to tech gadgets and more. In-person hackathons also include free food and swag, which is an obvious plus. However, virtual hackathons are also great events since they allow you to meet other creative people from all across the world.
My Experience at Superposition V
While I can personally attest that hackathons are indeed challenging, they are also very rewarding. I learned a lot from attending Superposition V, not just knowledge-wise, but also mindset-wise. Because of the very short time frame, I had to dedicate almost every second to my project. I was able to squeeze in some workshops here and there, but I spent the majority of my time working. Along with the actual coding portion, I had to record a pitch and write about my project. All three of these parts proved to be immensely difficult for a variety of reasons.
I faced many errors with my program, and it took hours of intensive testing and thinking to remove all of them. Pitching was honestly even worse since I had to rush through it due to time pressure. Once I was finally ready to submit, I realized that my answers for the writing portion didn't save and that I would have to start over. I only had around 10 minutes until the deadline, so I had to answer these extremely quickly as well. Thankfully, we were given a 15-minute extension, and I was able to piece together more coherent responses.
Even though the hackathon was stressful and exhausting, I still had an amazing time. The pride and fulfillment I felt from submitting my project made all of the hardship and sleep deprivation worth it. I came into the hackathon doubting if I would even be able to finish a project, and I came out with newfound confidence and appreciation for not just my own skills, but also others as well.
Why You Should Attend a Hackathon
Along with prizes, hackathons also offer a unique experience that combines learning, networking, and creativity into one event. Unlike other competitions, hackathons require a wide range of skills. Although it may seem like hackathons are only about programming, you also learn about creativity, design, and pitching. The workshops and keynotes provide valuable insight from industry professionals, and even just submitting a project helps you improve your current skills and develop new ones.
Another special part about hackathons is the incredible community they foster. You meet so many amazing people and have the opportunity to experience their passion firsthand through their projects. Although hackathons are intense competitions, everyone is still very supportive of each other. Additionally, you can even interact with influential people in tech and ask for help from knowledgeable mentors.
Most importantly, you should attend a hackathon because they are very, very fun. The stress and pressure may not seem very enjoyable at the moment, but the fulfillment you feel and the friendships you form will make it an incredibly memorable experience.
Making The Most of A Hackathon
Now that you're ready to sign up for one, it's important that you know how to fully take advantage of all the resources a hackathon offers.
1. Brainstorm Ahead of Time
Although you definitely don't have to participate in a hackathon with any prior ideas, it can be extremely helpful to have just a rough plan beforehand, such as what type of project you will create and/or a theme. This will allow you to immediately start working and prevent you from using valuable time that could have otherwise been dedicated to the actual creation of the project. I personally didn't form my idea until the hackathon started, which most likely contributed to the severe time crunch I faced at the end.
2. Stay Confident
In most hackathons, you can see the submissions from other groups. Superposition V was no exception, and I remember looking through the projects and feeling overwhelmed by how amazing they all were. Many of them used advanced concepts that I haven't even heard of, and my project seemed to pale in comparison to them. I felt my pride for submitting a project significantly diminish and going into the closing ceremony, I definitely wasn't feeling confident about my chances. Try not to compare yourself to other attendees, and instead, focus on your own achievements and hard work.
3. Manage Your Time
Time management is a very important part of hackathons, as you generally only have a maximum of two days to create a functional project. You should obviously spend the majority of your time programming, but it's also important to leave enough time for submitting the project and pitch. I would recommend giving yourself at least 30 minutes of wiggle room to fix any last-minute errors.
Additionally, if you sign up for a hackathon, make sure that you are free for the entire duration of the event. I underestimated how much of a time commitment a hackathon would be and fell behind on my other plans because of that.
4. Interact With Others
A big part of hackathons is meeting new people. Many participants form teams with strangers and develop close connections with each other from working together. Reach out to attendees with similar, or if you're feeling bold, different interests and ideas as you. It may feel a little awkward at first, especially for online hackathons, but before you know it, you will have plenty of new friendships and connections.