The growing trend in hackathons

Hackathon idea creation

For those not in the know yet, the word “hackathon” may conjure up images of a techie illegally gaining access to unsuspecting people’s computers or devices. In fact, a hackathon is in fact very legal and an inspiring process for those who organise it as well as those who attend.

Hackathons (also known to some as “codefests”) can be described as an event where a group of developers, designers, programmers and so forth come together at a specified venue and work together in teams to collaborate on projects. Sometimes hackathon organisers will provide prizes or awards to the team or teams that provide the best solution to the problem or who have come up with the best overall idea.

In South Africa, hackathons are becoming increasingly popular (something that has previously had more attention overseas than here). There are hackathons for helping power and water utilities become more efficient such as was done for the African Utility Week, a Jozi Hackathon focusing on issues relating to the city of Johannesburg. These are only a few of the examples available.

Maxxor is no stranger to hackathons. Hackathons can be divided into many different types. A hackathon can focus on a specific application type or platform such as mobile apps, specific operating systems, web development, video game development (these are often called “game jams”) and so forth. An example of this can be found in an event such as Music Hack Day where the focus falls on music-related software and hardware applications.

Another popular type of hackathon is aiming the attention at a particular API, programming language or framework. Yahoo!’s Open Hack Day is a great example of this since this event focuses on the Yahoo! API. These particular events can also focus on languages like HTML5 or frameworks like Java.

Some hackathons focus on a cause or purpose, showing that these events can be uplifting to society. Governments have also become involved in these events to improve their services (as can be seen in the South African example), disaster management groups have used these to improve their relief systems and an event that was held by the name of Education Hack Day has helped bring ideas to the fore regarding education.

Other hackathons worth mentioning are those aimed at a specific demographic group such as teenagers or students, as well as hackathons held within a particular organisation (and then only open to members of the organisation such as the company hackathons that happen here at Maxxor).

People who are not coders or developers of any kind often feel that they cannot attend hackathons due to a lack of coding or technical skills. However, fear not, hackathons have been known to involve people with varying skill sets. People with skills in graffiti, graphic design, marketing, engineering, business planning, recruiting and more can easily get involved depending on what kind of hackathon is being held. There are hackathons that delve into art, education, engineering and many other industries, not only technological. Skills that are not normally associated with a particular industry may help to bring fresh ideas into view that others, who perhaps are stuck in a particular mindset, may not have thought of before.

There are many guides to arranging a hackathon to be found on the Internet. A hackathon is like any other event but there are some elements that are more important to a hackathon than, perhaps, a charity event. The greatest element to consider is access to technology. A great Internet connection, power strips and working hardware. If any of the teams need something in order to bring life to their idea, that need should be met or made available.

To organize an event such as this requires research beforehand. But over and above the research, a goal needs to be set for the hackathon and this will determine the research that should be done. What should your hackathon achieve? An idea for a new mobile app? Enriching the lives of others through technology? A contract for the best team to work with your company? Awareness of a particular gap in an industry and the potential solutions to closing the gap? Setting a goal (rather only have one to focus the creative energy more effectively) will determine things such as the people who will attend, the tone of the event, the methods that will be used, the ideas delivered and the end results.

Now that you know a little bit more about hackathons, what do you need to remember if you plan to attend something like this? Just as is the case with organising a hackathon, do your research beforehand. What type of event are you about to attend? This will help you to get an idea of what the theme of the event is and if it is suited to your skills. Knowing the theme helps you to plan ahead. If there is no theme, remember that you might need to learn new skills or apply your skills to unusual practices

Be open-minded about the process. This means being open to meeting new people with different ideas than you might be used to and open about what you will be doing. To make that open mindedness easier to achieve, choose a hackathon that suits your ideology. Some hackathons are entrepreneurial, others are more focused on open data or public services. Base your choice on your current skills, what you enjoy doing in any case and what you are most likely to learn from.

Be aware of expectations. You know that when you attend a hackathon for a charitable organisation, you will be expected to work for nothing. But there are newer players in the hackathon arena that may expect you to only “work” for free pizza or free beer because of the fact that they are only starting out.

Don’t neglect the physiological part of it. Drinking alcohol is not against most hackathons’ rules but know what you can and cannot do to be productive. If one or two beers don’t affect your ability to work productively, then go ahead. If you know alcohol inhibits your creative and affects your mood, rather avoid it.

Remember that even though it is a competitive environment, you still need to have fun. Have a sense of humour, be relaxed and see it as a fun learning experience. You don’t need to participate in competition as it is not usually a prerequisite. If you do enter into the competitive aspect, make sure to remember that the idea, application or good cause is the goal and not whether you win or not.

Not everyone is a party animal at heart and it is likely that you will be nervous at first. Will people talk to you? Will you like the other people? Will your ideas be useful or valuable enough to be included in the hackathon? Do you belong? Nerves have a place and helps to motivate but remember that there are many other people who are thinking the same things you are and your skills are exactly why hackathons were starting in the beginning. One of the most important things that will help you overcome nervousness is to ask questions. Never be afraid to do so because there will be someone who was thinking the same thing and someone with knowledge eager to teach others something new.

The most valuable part of any hackathon is the learning experience. Walking away from such an event will never result in coming away empty handed. There will always be a new idea for inspiration (either from others or from yourself) and there is likely a new skill you will have learnt or want to learn after seeing it in action. Hackathons are great arenas for establishing bonds with like-minded individuals, gaining knowledge outside of your comfort zone and learning how people can work together to achieve a common goal or purpose.