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What Is a Hackathon? Definition, Benefits and Tips

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Ever wondered, “what is a hackathon?” We have the answers you need!

Great Software Engineers are always looking for opportunities to enhance their resumes with examples of their coding prowess. After all, employers who are looking to hire a new Engineer need to know that they have the skills and experience needed to meet the company’s needs. If you’re a Software Engineer looking to give your resume a needed boost, one great option is to participate in hackathons. But what is a hackathon? We’re glad you asked!

In this post, we’ll answer that question, explain why hackathons exist, and look at several different types of hackathon events. In addition, we’ll consider the benefits they can provide for coders and offer some tips to help you to participate successfully in a hackathon.

What is a hackathon?

So, what is a hackathon event? Well, it’s a limited-time event that offers participants an opportunity to work together in teams to develop software programming that solves a specific problem. The word itself is a combination of two distinct words: hacker and marathon. 

Now, if your first thought is that these events are places where criminal hackers gather to devise new schemes, think again. The actual meaning of hacker encompasses anyone who uses computer skills to solve technical problems. The marathon aspect is even easier to understand, since it simply refers to any endurance event.

When you put those two words together to form the hackathon portmanteau, the definition becomes clearer. A hackathon is a set event at which computer users come together over a one to two-day period to solve technological challenges. It’s really that simple.

Why do hackathons exist?

The term hackathon appears to have originated in mid-1999, when OpenBSD conducted its first hackathon event in Calgary. Sun Microsystems held its own hackathon shortly afterwards. Within a few years, these events became more frequent and popular in the tech industry and even helped to birth several technology companies.

Hackathons are conducted for a variety of reasons, often depending on the motives of the person or organization responsible for hosting the event. For example:

  • Companies may host internal hackathons to drive innovation

  • Hackathons can also be a great way to create new ways to use data

  • Hackathons can foster creativity and a sense of community for coders

  • Companies can often find new talent by conducting open hackathons

  • Hackathons can provide new solutions to enable rapid adoption of disruptive technologies

  • Hackathons are sometimes used as team-building exercises

Hackathon types

When asking the question, “what is a hackathon?” it’s important to consider that there are different types. Just as important, those different types of hackathon may have very different themes and goals. Below are a few of the more common varieties of hackathon events.

  • Internal hackathons: These events are organized by companies and gather their own employees in one place to work on common solutions. These events are usually conducted to drive innovation within the firm.

  • External hackathons: An external hackathon is like the internal variety, but the pool of talent is expanded to participants from outside the company. Often, these events are used to not only drive innovation, but also to identify new talent.

  • Industry hackathons: These industry-specific events bring together participants from different companies within the same industry and are often used to create community, showcase new ideas, and share information.

  • Application-based hackathons: An application-focused hackathon is a place where talented coders come together to develop new mobile apps, APIs, and other specific application technologies.

  • Demographic hackathons: Several major hackathons have been conducted in recent years to focus attention on specific coder demographic groups. For instance, there are events for female coders, students, and other demographically distinct groups.

  • Non-profit hackathons: As the name suggests, these events are conducted to allow participating coders to work in teams to solve various charitable and non-profit challenges.

  • Online hackathons: An online event can be conducted with participants from anywhere in the world, using video conferencing and other technology.

How does a hackathon work?

The next question you might ask is probably related to how a hackathon works. While each hackathon event is different, there are some common features that most of them share with one another. They often have the same basic structure and organization, as well as similar features. For example:

  • All hackathons take place over a set period, with a limit of one or two days.

  • Many hackathons are sponsored by companies or other organizations. Those entities typically cover all the costs of the event and are responsible for its organization, defining the challenge, and awarding any prizes or other rewards.

  • Hackathons are competitions, with participants divided into teams that work to create group solutions that are then assessed by judges.

  • A hackathon is a fast-paced environment that often pushes participants to find solutions that might otherwise have taken many weeks, months, or years to achieve.

What benefits do hackathons provide?

If you read all that and still find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about, that’s a natural reaction. After all, why should you even bother to put yourself through all that effort and stress, if the solutions you help to develop aren’t directly benefiting your pocketbook? The answer is simple: participating in a hackathon can offer any Programmer a whole host of benefits that can be difficult to obtain in any other environment. If you doubt that, just consider the following potential benefits that a hackathon could provide. By participating, you can:

Expand your network

In most hackathons, you’ll find yourself working with a diverse group of professionals who all share your appreciation for programming. There will be coders with a variety of different skill levels, which means that you’ll experience opportunities to teach skills to some team members while learning new skills from others. Throughout that process, you can meet new people, forge professional connections, and expand your network.

Boost your confidence and morale

As a Programmer, you know that there’s no confidence boost greater than that feeling you get when you’ve solved a problem and achieved your goal. Hackathons are entirely focused on overcoming challenges and finding solutions, so they’re a great way to get that sense of accomplishment you need to boost morale. That will also help to reinforce your appreciation and passion for programming, which can drive you to push yourself to even loftier heights of achievement and success.

Earn industry recognition

By tossing your hat into the hackathon ring, you can gain notoriety for your skills by working with your team to solve the event challenge. As you do so, you will build relationships with mentors and others, have an opportunity to establish yourself as an expert in the industry, and gain insight into new ideas that could inspire you to develop a new product – or even launch your own company!

Develop new skills

As we mentioned earlier, you’ll be working with people who have varying levels of skills and experience. As you work together with your team, you’ll get an opportunity to learn new programming techniques, new ways of thinking about code, and new approaches to problem-solving. The fast-paced nature of the event will force you to think on your feet and adapt to these new ways of doing things, which can enable you to quickly develop new technical skills that will benefit you throughout your career.

At the same time, the collaborative nature of the process will push you to use and develop critical soft skills that will benefit you tremendously. You’ll need to use your communication skills to their fullest effect, figure out how to work even more effectively as part of an organized team, and develop your leadership skills to ensure that your input has an impact. 

Even better, every new hackathon that you participate in will provide even more opportunities to develop those critical technical and soft skills, ensuring that you continue to enhance your value as a Programmer.

Expand your career horizons

As you learn new skills, gain prominence in your industry, and build your networking relationships, you’ll also increase your job prospects. Depending on which hackathons you join, there’s always the opportunity to get noticed by a new employer or even earn the attention of your current company’s leadership. You may gain access to new projects and potential promotions.

The experience could even change the way you think about your career prospects and cause you to expand your goals. That could lead to an entirely new career path that you’ll find even more rewarding. The bottom line, of course, is that you really won’t fully understand the benefits you can enjoy from hackathon participation until you take part in one.

Enhance your resume

Employers are always looking for valuable experience on any Programmer’s resume. When you list details about your achievements at a hackathon – especially a notable event that the interviewer may recognize – that’s the type of information that can spark serious interest from an employer. Add any hackathon participation to a special Achievements section in your resume and include bullet point highlights explaining the challenge, your contribution, and the value you added to the team’s solution.

Tips to help you succeed in a hackathon

Okay, so now you feel as though you’ve gotten an answer to that whole “what is a hackathon?” question and you’re interested enough to consider joining an event near you. How do you prepare for one of these events after you decide to participate? Are there strategies you can use to ensure that you’re at your best when the hackathon begins? These tips can help you to optimize your chances and get you started on the right foot.

Do your homework before the event starts

Once you’ve found and joined an event that aligns with your skills, learn everything you can about its purpose, structure, and flow. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into and that you have the right experience and competencies to contribute to any team effort. That includes ensuring that you’re familiar with the specific technologies being used in the event.

Get rest before the event

Hackathons can last for a day or two, and most participants will be running on very little sleep as they work to conquer the challenge. Try to get as much rest as possible in the days leading up to the event, so that you’re prepared for that grind.

Teamwork is a must

Take stock of your collaboration skills before you show up. You’ll be working as part of a team, so you need to think about how you’ll use those skills to work with others and achieve your goals. Focus on important skills like communication, flexibility, adaptability, and active listening. Give a little thought to your conflict resolution abilities too, just in case you need to defuse any tensions.

Network while you’re there

If you just show up, complete the task, and go home without meeting new people or forging connections, you’ll have really wasted a tremendous opportunity to expand your network. Despite the fast-paced, competitive environment, you should still be able to find time to meet other industry professionals and executives if you make the effort to do so.

Don’t neglect hackathons when you’re gathering experience for your resume!

Now you can answer “what is a hackathon?” and understand how a hackathon will benefit you. When employers are looking for new Programmers, they’re intensely focused on skills and experiences that can add immediate value to their companies. 

As a Software Engineer, your time spent participating in hackathons will help you to showcase real world achievements that are guaranteed to help you earn an employer’s attention – and the interview you need to land a great job.  

Need help making sure that your experience with hackathons is properly conveyed in your resume? Take a few moments to get your free resume review from our team of experts and let them help you to craft the compelling resume you need for job search success.

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