Who Are You, Anyway?
In case you’re just jumping into these blogs now, let me give you some context about myself.
I’m a 20 year old college sophomore at the University of Connecticut Stamford campus. I’m currently pursuing a web design and development concentration within the digital media and design degree. There has never been a moment in my life that I wasn’t interested in technology, and as of March 16th, I’ll have been making websites for 10 years (with 4 of those years involving professional work). I’m proficient in HTML and CSS, and I’m learning PHP, SQL, graphic design, and user experience design as well. I’ve dabbled in a lot of tech related fields including photography, audio and video editing, game design, 3D printing/modeling, and even hardware. The Stamford Hackathon (2.0) was the first hackathon I’ve ever attended, and also the first hackathon I’ve ever won an award in.
Taking all that into consideration, below is my advice for anyone who’s thinking of attending a hackathon (especially first timers).
Hackathons Are Win-Win
It’s important to understand that hackathons are win-win. That is, you win because you have access to special technology set ups and people to work on a project with, and the sponsors win because they have people showing others how their products can be used to achieve various tasks. That being said, if they’re available, you should definitely talk to the sponsors if you’re confused about their product. (If the flowthings staff hadn’t been so helpful, we probably wouldn’t have had the time to finish our project.) Remember: They want you to succeed too!
Play with the Cool Toys and Learn New Things
Time to expand on that bit about having access to special technology set ups mentioned in the previous section. Sometime people bring in cool things (like an HTC Vive and the Samsung Galaxy Gear), and the sponsors might let you borrow their products so you can write code and create ideas for them. Essentually, It’s a chance to try things you wouldn’t have an excuse to try out otherwise. I probably wouldn’t have attempted to do work for anything ‘Internet of Things’ related for a while (especially considering it’s an API involving hardware and not another internet service). Because of the hackathon, I’ve had experience doing it once, and now I know I can try it again and it’s not as foreign. In addition, I finally got some real life usage of GitHub, something I hadn’t done before because I couldn’t find any projects I could contribute to.
Networking and Social Atmosphere (“Be Excellent to Each Other”) One of the things that should hopefully last beyond the programs written or awards won are the connections you make with the other people. The idea that you should ‘be excellent to each other’ truly was ever-present during the entire event. Everyone has something to contribute, but you can’t learn if you don’t talk to people.It’s not possible to tap into the knowledge of other people if you don’t talk to them. I wouldn’t have looked into 3D web technologies or VR for the web if I hadn’t had a chance to talk to someone whose job focused around those technologies.
Regardless of the opportunities you get from the sponsors, if you join a hackathon, you’ll have the chance to see which languages are trending and what people are actually using for their projects. There was also a wide range of jobs within tech (and outside of it) and skill sets, so you’ll be able to learn from many different perspectives.
Just because a project is full of technical wizardry, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to win a prize. If projects were judged on technical complexity, we certainly wouldn’t have won. However, we won 1st place in a category (and you can read my reflections on day 3 to get some more detailed info as to why I think we fit the judge criteria), and a group that presented something that was just a ‘proof of concept’ won best sponsor mashup. Something that I think made us stand out was the user experience/design. Our project used fundamental functions of the sensors but also applied a very specific use case and designed around meeting the needs for that use case.
What I think I’ve pinned down as the bigger idea is that hackathons celebrate the ways people can utilize technology to achieve specific goals.
Stick Through to the End
One of the things I didn’t expect was that there was a fair portion of people who didn’t stay for the entire weekend. Over the course of the entire event, 3 people dropped out of the team I was part of and didn’t return. If you are part of a team and you don’t have another obligation, it’s courteous to stay and not create a disruption. Not to mention, if you leave, you’re likely to miss opportunities (see the networking bit above).
Just as practical advice, make sure to ask teammates about their availability once you start working together, and if people are on the fence about coming back the next day, assume they won’t show up.
A Community Event
The hackathon wasn’t only fun for the hackers, but also the public that had a chance to visit. During the event, there were demos and presentations from the sponsors anyone could go to as well as a ‘maker fair’ from the Westport library that let kids show cool projects off. I think I saw Girls Who Code was in the building at some point, and there was a mini hackathon for high schoolers on Sunday morning as well.
If you are interested in programming or computer science, try participating in a hackathon! If you like technology, show your support for participants in the presentations! All in all, there’s a lot to gain from going, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.