Hackathons: They’re taking over the Tech Industry and why do they even matter!

“Isn’t this thing Illegal?”

baulked my friend when he learnt that I’m headed for a Hackathon.

I had been accepted to my first offline Hackathon since I landed in the United States almost a few months back. This is about HackIllinois 2016, and moreover, it is about how Hackathons are changing the face of the Tech industry, for good.

As I received my first acceptance to the prestigious HackIllinois 2016 at The University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign, I was excited just as anyone who were to attend their first Hackathon, that is completely paid for, every sense. Being one of the biggest Hackathons of the mid-west regions, HackIllinois 2016 kicked off on a fine weekend on 19th February. The event was attended by over 1500 hackers ranging from developers, designers, aspiring entrepreneurs and over 150 companies seeking talent and some amazing things to be built over the span of 3 consecutive days.

Hackathons: What they are like exactly?

At its core, Hackathons are where some skilled and ambitious people gather to build something valuable over the course of the 36 to 48 hours that they usually span for.

Sponsored by some of the best tech companies, including Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, VMWare, and so forth, hackathons are rapidly changing the face of tech and how Minimum viable products are launched in a very short span of time.

As The New York Times notices, Hackathons have recently become a breeding ground for recruiting motivated and talented people right from these setups. There’s more to Hackathons as people might believe them as to be. While it has always been assumed that previous coding experience or only Computer Science majors are invited to these events, you’ve never been more wrong!

HackIllinois 2016 Bus

HackIllinois 2016 En Route to Urbana-Champaign

Most of the Hackathons in the United States are completely paid for, including amendments for travel and reimbursement for attendees to wish to go on their own. Since this Hackathon was at our Sister university, I chose to opt for the free bus option, since it sounded pretty convenient for me. A total of 3 hours and some power nap later, we landed at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, alma mater of the founder of YouTube and the guy who invented Integrated Circuits! This itself got me pumped up as I, along with 1500 other hackers, checked in at the event, which kicked off with a career fair.

Once all of the formalities and the dining was done, it was time for the real action to get started. While some of the hackers reach the place with groups of their own, many first-timers and veterans alike choose to find teammates for the Hackathon during the meet-and-greet after dining. Within a quick talk of 20-30 minutes, everyone somehow manages to get into some or the other team, and I was lucky to have found one for myself in the process.

My team members included one in his final year of Bachelor’s in Computer Science from Georgia-Tech and the other a Freshman from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign itself. We had complementing skills where one guy did the backend, I did the middleware JavaScript stuff and the other one did the front-end. How lucky was I to find a group that perfectly complemented each other’s skills!

The night kicks in, and the hacking begins! Hackathons are usually sponsored by a couple hundred of companies, who present their latest API’s for the developers to work on and build something unique and valuable in as little time as possible.

We talked to a couple of company’s tech representatives and finally settled with Amadeus Corp.’s API to work on some travel-related product. One of the biggest challenges of Hackathons even after you’ve found yourself a talented team is to actually come up with something valuable and achieve it technically in a time span of 48 hours. We chose to go with the latest MEAN stack (MongoDB, ExpressJS, AngularJS and NodeJS) for our web-based application and experimented with the relatively new Ionic Framework for developing the application into a Hybrid HTML application, that could be exported out as an Android or iOS application.

The first hurdle came along and everything that is pretty with AngularJS started troubling us when trying to integrate it into the Ionic Framework.

HackIllinois 2016

HackIllinois 2016

After a gazillion of energy drinks, pizza slices, coca-colas and tacos later, we’ve finally done it! We’ve built our very own travel application, that is more of a travel discovery application, based on the web and mobile platforms. Next up it was to participate in a product demo round and compete with other hundreds of participants. All in all, there was a total of 216 projects on demo on the presentation day! Each team is assigned a table and the company representatives head over to the tables for getting a quick demo of the product that we’ve built over the course of the weekend.

Overall, it was an amazing weekend and saw some great products, some only thought of before and some completely out-of-the-box hacks. Needless to say, the out-of-the-box ideas grabbed all the winning prizes, and although we were left empty-handed, I came back with an experience that I’ll cherish for a lifetime.

Now, setting aside my own experience at the Hackathon, here are key takeaways that I believe why Hackathons are rapidly changing the way we comprehend the tech industry.

What makes Hackathons worthwhile: Benefits of attending

It makes you efficient working in teams

The ability to work in harmonious with other people is one of an essential attribute of any successful entrepreneur or employee. Although there are people who like to go solo, it is your efficiency in working with other people that are often gauged as a success factor. Hackathons are where people from different educational backgrounds come to meet together and build some cool stuff over the weekend. You get the exposure to other people, their knowledge and skill set and the people at Hackathons are extremely friendly, to a point where they go out of their way to help you with something they are well-versed in.

They provide you the resources to work on your idea

It is often one of the biggest complaints of wannabe entrepreneurs that they lack the time or the resources required to build the product that they’ve always dreamt of. Well, Hackathons are then a chance of your redemption. It is in the actual building of products that you make stuff and the more you wait for the right time to come along, the more you are losing out to a competitor who is working on quickly getting an MVP into the market. Hackathons provide you with the necessary time, resources and an inspirational setup to work on the products you wish to see in the market and people use.

You get a hands-on experience of rapid prototyping

Although I had a barebone idea of what rapid prototyping is like, it is working on actual product prototypes that you learn more about them and learn to realize their importance. Chalking out a well-furnished application or product in a span of 36 hours is not only challenging but also undoable. Hackathons do not pursue perfection, they rather are all about how quickly you can build a minimum viable product of your amazing idea.

It is more about coming up with unique solutions to problems and building something that addresses the problems up to some extent. Hackathon judges do not expect you to find the cure to cancer or build a Facebook-killer in 36 hours, they are more about how you look at a problem, quickly find a solution and build an MVP from the ground-up.

You improve your Networking skills

Networking at HackIllinois

Hackathons are usually attended by the company’s technical representatives, who are a huge source of knowledge, experience and expertise in their field of work. These representatives are extremely friendly and are more than happy to help you out with your code bug or just play a quick game of pong with you. Company recruiters are also often among the attendees of such events and landing an internship or a job offer from such an event is not highly unlikely. Hackathons also attract talent from across the entire country, where you get to network with people coming from very diverse backgrounds and with a diverse skillset. These factors make Hackathons a great source to work and improve upon your networking skills and taking them to the next level.

You get to work on Hardware hacks

HackIllinois 2016 Demo 2

It is not very often that you get to work on Oculus Rift or the Myo Armband for absolutely no cost! Hackathons provide their attendees with all kinds of hardware stuff to work on and build some amazingly cool products. Myo Armband, Oculus Rift, Parrot AT Drones, Pebble Smartwatches and much more! If you’ve always wanted to work on some really cool hardware projects, Hackathons are usually a great source of hardware resources to work on and develop for them.

Product Demos

HackIllinois 2016 Demo

Once all of the products are built within the given time span, the next part is the product demos. This differs from hackathon to hackathon, but since here there were over 200 teams, tables were assigned to each team to demo their hack. Product demos are attended by company representatives and the Hackathon judges themselves too.

Having Jay Freeman (the guy who developed Cydia, the iPhone jailbreaking tool), as one of the mentors and judges was an amazing thing for the event. You get to work on your elevator pitch and learn how to give better product demos to the people in the tech industry. Pitching your ideas after a tiresome 36 hours is hard, but fun! These people are genuinely interested in what you’ve built and take the time to learn more about the product and the idea.

Freebies, Goodies, and lots of Hacker swag!

Food, stickers, t-shirts, desk decor, a lot of hacker swag and you name it! Hackathons thank their attendees with a token of appreciation, in the form of goodies and hacker swag freebies. Show off your hacker pride with these goodies and inspire others to be a part of something cool and work on the ideas that they truly believe in. Who doesn’t like free stuff and Hackathons provide you with some of the coolest geeky stuff if you are into those things!

Final Thoughts on Attending Hackathons:

While a lot of the things talked about in this article primarily reflects the state of Hackathons in the United States, many other countries are quickly catching up to it now there are a handful of hackathons happening in India.

If you are particularly interested in attending one sometime soon, check out the resources section below. While Hackathons are essentially competitions, they are about the experience and not just about winning the competition. Building meaningful relationships while building some amazingly cool stuff and moments to cherish for your lifetime are what Hackathons are all about! I have personally received an invitation to seven more Major League Hackathons and my next stop, HackCU it is!

Until then, check out some really cool Hackathons happening around you in India:

There are always more than these hackathons happening around you and make sure that you keep an eye out for such events for making the most of everything that they have to offer you. Be it a designer, developer or entrepreneur, you will always be welcomed at Hackathons, irrespective of your educational background and experience coding.

Build stuff and have fun!

So, what are your thoughts regarding Hackathons and how they’re changing the face of the tech industry? Feel free to shout out your thoughts and comments below.

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HackIllinois 2016 Demo 2
Authored By
A Shouter whose articles got mentions from the likes of The New York Times, Kissmetrics and AllTopStories. He writes articles, novels and poems; spends most of his time reading everything he could get his hands on. Srikanth is currently pursuing his Masters from The University of Illinois and holds a Bachelors in Electronics Engineering from the University of Mumbai. He is a programmer, a motivational writer and speaker.
  • Pankaj Dhawan says:

    Wow! This seems like lot of fun. I would love to be in such seminars where people are tech savvy talking about innovations. This is the perfect place to meet those people who are willing to change the world with their work. I am sure you would have lot of fun and learning being in such a fest!

  • Avtar singh says:

    By the end of the Article you shared the process of learning how to Hackathons with speed. You will walk through user testing and how it can support the product design process to then be employed to deliver better user experience.

    Thanks Srikanth for Your Awesome Ideas!!

  • Nitesh Nayak says:

    Very good post harsh
    Thanks for sharing it with us…

    • glad I could help. Though the credit goes to Srikanth for his experience & sharing the journey. I look forward to hearing more from you!

  • Janmejai says:

    Can you share the winners idea or the product they developed?

    • Johnny says:

      I agree with Janmejai. If you could share the winners it would be another great read for sure.

  • Arjun PR says:

    “Hackathons happening around you in India” First of all thanks for this valuable links ! . Great share by Srikanth.
    I too had had couple of experiences,The workshops and hackathons are great place to savvies never miss those ! Thanks Harsh.

  • Vee N Ric says:

    WOW Sri…
    Prior to your post…
    Did not even know
    That there was such a thing as
    Congratz on your acceptance
    At your first HACKATHON.
    Read your post
    With a great deal of excitement
    It fells like it is
    A totally different
    PLANET out there
    Thanks for sharing.

  • iaan says:

    Wow! This seems like lot of fun. I would love to be in such seminars where people are tech savvy talking about innovations. This is the perfect place to meet those people who are willing to change the world with their work. I am sure you would have lot of fun and learning being in such a fest!

  • iaan says:

    I agree with Janmejai. If you could share the winners it would be another great read for sure.

  • Jason Rife says:

    Went to “Access all areas” and the 2600 conference back in the day in London. The days of boxing and phone-freaks.

    Such was the fun before it all got way too serious 🙂

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