At a hackathon, the majority of the attendees are students (I met high schoolers, undergraduates, and graduate students) that work in teams of four people. Each team has a project that is presented at a symposium or demo fair at the conclusion of the hackthon. Every project is judged and winners are awarded prizes. To give you a real sense of how this all goes down, let me take you on a little adventure through my first hackathon…
Friday Evening - The Crazy Commences
After check-in, everyone headed over to what I like to call ‘The Hall of Sponsors’. Dozens of companies came to PennApps to mentor students, help them use their hardware, application program interfaces (APIs), or other products, and even to recruit. I learned that this is one major reason students attend hackathons: to network and find high quality jobs in tech. Many of the companies were giving out awesome swag, so I chatted with a few of them and picked up t-shirts, a charging console, and a water bottle.
The next stop was the opening ceremonies. All 1,300 attendees packed into an auditorium, where the PennApps team welcomed us. The main purpose of the gathering was a chance for the sponsors and mentors to introduce their company and tell people about what expertise or products students could use during the weekend. A wide variety of companies attended the event, from Bloomberg to Spotify and Pebble watches.
By this point, everyone was getting hungry and a buffet line was set up serving Philly Cheese Steaks. And so formed the largest line for food I have ever seen. Almost 1,000 hungry 20-somethings lining up for free food is a pretty scary sight. During this time, I could also hear teams formulating plans. The smart ones skipped the food and went straight for the hardware room, where they laid claims to all the parts they needed. As the evening wore on, the supply of company products and hardware dwindled, forcing teams to change their design plans.
On Friday evening, I volunteered in the ‘The Hall of Sponsors’ as a mentor for the Health division of PennApps. Many teams who were developing plans for healthcare hacks consulted with us—us being medical students, doctors, etc.—about whether their idea for an app could be helpful in the hospital or in the field for patients or medical professionals. I spoke with teams who had technical ideas that they wanted to find a healthcare application for, as well as teams who had healthcare problems they wanted to solve but needed more specifics about the issue.
One of the most interesting scenarios was when I came across one or two people who were not already part of a full team. Several times there were hardware experts seeking computer scientists or vice-versa. There was even a pair of medical students interested in finding a team to tackle an idea they had. I kept taking email addresses and tried to pair up different groups of people. It was so fun to talk to all these people with tons of energy. Everyone was so excited about building something. By 11:30pm, I was pretty wiped out. Time for me to get some shut-eye. (All the teams kept working though! Although most people slept for at least a few hours each night of the hackathon, most seemed to be getting 4-5 hours.)
Saturday - When Sh*t Gets Done
One of the events I attended on Saturday was the Women Hackers Meet-up. If you ever attend a hackathon, you will immediately notice that the male to female ratio hovers around 7 or 8 to 1, so it was really fun to get to know other women participating in the event and chat with them about their backgrounds and future aspirations. Brynn Claypoole, one of the organizers of PennApps and a former director of PennApps, started organizing the meet-up last year to encourage community amongst the female hackers. Brynn’s series of coding tutorials (which she offered for FREE last summer at Penn) is actually what first got me interested in being involved in a hackathon. Basically, she’s awesome and the meet-up was great.
Sunday - Time for Show and Tell
Overall, attending the hackathon was an interesting and eye-opening experience. To me, one of the biggest benefits of a hackathon is the focus teams are able to achieve. If you come into the event with an idea of a project you want to tackle, hackathons are the perfect mix of time pressure, free hardware and industry expertise, and free food to fuel some really cool inventions. Secondly, the camaraderie at hackathons truly cannot be beat. The entire process is inclusive and exploratory, pushing people out of their comfort zone while making them feel welcome. All in all, not a bad way to spend a weekend. Next time, I want to be on a team—it just looked like so much fun!
If you are interested in attending a hackathon, check out the upcoming events on Major League Hacking (MLH). If you are not associated with a university, the Hacker League includes a list of hackathons for all age groups across the world. Happy Hacking!