Are hackathons for beginners?

Hackathon Beginner: A term used in this blog to define someone who is new to the world of hackathons and is thinking of participating in one.

Are you a hackathon beginner? Does that make you feel worried or anxious? To be frank I was very nervous thinking that amidst all these experienced hackers, a beginner like me would not stand a chance.

I will talk about what worked for me and what didn’t at both online and offline hackathons.

However, I am not going to tell you, if as a beginner, hackathons are for you, but I will share my story. You can decide later if you still want to attend a hackathon.

On-site hackathons are usually hosted over the weekends and they last over 24–48 hours. This is a place where you meet a lot of like-minded people, learn and discuss new things and create a project per the themes or problem statements provided during the hackathon. Honestly, being an introvert and not being some sort of a genius or coding pro, I was not too excited by it.

I’ve participated in tons of hackathons now, and I believe everyone should attend at least one hackathon in their lifetime! Here’s why it’s awesome to go to these events, and why you shouldn’t be scared of taking part as a hackathon beginner.


What happens when you arrive at a hackathon

When you arrive at a hackathon, you will be greeted at the registration desk by a cheerful and friendly organizing team. The team can be university students or company professionals who are as passionate about learning and sharing amazing experiences like you are. The welcoming crowd at the registration desk may vary according to the size of the hackathon. There is a big chance that your welcome kit would include cool t-shirts, stickers, and other swags which are provided by the hackathon team and the sponsors.

hackathon beginners registration

You will then have to head to the venue where they will begin with the inaugural talks and the organising team will explain the rules of the hackathon. Then, you will have the sponsors talking about their products and API; they will tell you if the company is going to provide any special prize for teams that build apps using their products or APIs. Sometimes, somebody famous might come to talk to you!

During this time, you would probably want to put aside your gear and start talking to a few people. When I started talking to people at my first hackathon, I realised that for a lot of people it was their first hackathon as well. So, you do not want to miss an opportunity to talk to people and find out a bit more about them. You can discuss what they are planning to build over the next couple of days and what kind of technology stack they are going to use.

hackathon beginners

The hacking begins with the countdown timer. You will either have your own team or you can form a team on the spot (Which is why talking to people is important). You will find people working on similar ideas and technology stacks. You can build whatever you want as long as it is aligned to the hackathon problem statement. Remember that the best part of hackathons isn’t winning prizes. It’s about playing with awesome tech and meeting people who believe in crazy ideas like you do.

You will be able to work on your idea for the next 24–48 hrs. I have noticed some crazy people who work non-stop for almost the entire duration. You can always choose to take a break and eat some of the free food they have at the venue or take a power nap. My first hackathon venue had provisions for fun activities like foosball and table tennis. You can have a nice break from working and check on other teams and what they have built. People take turns at night to get some sleep.

Don’t rush to finish your hackathon project. Plan your project per the duration of the hackathon. Proper product planning and listing features that you and your team are going to work on are critical to your doing well in the hackathon and winning. If you rush it, you might just end up with a buggy product which will leave you frustrated with a lot of last-minute debugging.

hackathon beginners

Hacking is over and now it’s time for you to demo whatever you have crafted. At smaller hackathons where there is less participation, all teams demo their projects in front of everybody else. It really does not matter if you could not build a polished product or if you think whatever you build was stupid. It’s all about sharing how you built what you have built so far, what unique insights, ideas or approach you had towards solving the problem, and what you learned overall during the time you spent at the hackathon.

If you are at a bigger hackathon, then as it would take too much time for the demo, the judges usually split and walk around to cover more ground. Remember the science fairs we used to have in schools? That is exactly what happens. Then, the best teams are shortlisted by the judges to demo in front of everyone. It’s amazing to know how people took so many different approaches to solve the same problems.

This brings us to the closing ceremony where winners are announced and prizes are distributed. You will be thanked for coming and invited to come again if there is a next time.


Common myths most hackathon beginners harbour


You have to be a super coder

This used to be my biggest nightmare about hackathons. It is also the most common hackathon beginner myth. I used to believe I would be crushed like a cockroach by all these amazing super-coders. But after attending the first hackathon itself I realised, the super-coders don’t necessarily win hackathons. The teams with decent programmers and the best-laid plans always have better chances. It’s not just about programming in a hackathon, but it’s also about your idea and approach to solving the problem, the product planning, the pitch deck/presentation, and so much more. Every team has an equal chance of winning.


It’s expensive

Ninety-nine percent of the hackathons are free of cost. The only expense you might have are the travel expenses to go to the hackathon venue. Focus on the “might” because sometimes the organising team reimburses the travel expense for you. And if you are taking part in an online hackathon, you can work on your idea from the beach if you like.

I am such a fan of online hackathons now because of the flexibility and freedom this format offers.


It’s all about winning

That’s what I used to think in the start. As time passed and I attended more and more hackathons, I started caring more about meeting people with similar ideas, having fun, discussing creative ways to solve the problem, and, most importantly, learning and growing personally. Don’t believe me? Try it out yourself. Sometimes you do win and get amazing prizes in the process and sometimes you don’t. But the experience you gain is priceless. You don’t have to take my word for it.

Here is the StackOverflow developer survey 2018

hackathon beginner

Discovering the world of Online Hackathons

A whole new dimension of possibilities opened up after I discovered the world of online hackathons. Online hackathons give you certain degree of flexibility in terms of duration and people you can collaborate with; the very fact that I didn’t have to miss my university lectures was great. I started participating in more hackathons than ever before. I could code from my bed late at night, at university, near the pool, on the terrace, and just about anywhere I could carry my laptop with access to the internet. Initially, I had my fair share of initial doubts about connecting with people and discussing like we used to do in on-site hackathons and have fun. But who am I kidding in this generation of internet and connectivity? This never became an issue, and I could talk with fellow hackathon participants over dedicated hackathon slack channels and other similar mediums.

Over the course of time, the hackathon experience became so much better because the geographies and borders meant nothing. I could sit in San Francisco collaborate with hackers from Chicago and Montreal and participate in a food waste hackathon hosted by a New York based organisation.

It meant I get to work with people from all over the world and learn about them and their ways, and this has made me learn and grow multiple folds as an individual.


Now, what are your thoughts on hackathons? Would you like to give it a shot?

Yes, I understand that you might still have your reservations as a hackathon beginner, so here is beginner-level hackathon you can get started with. Once you are confident enough, you can go ahead and take part in other hackathons listed here.

All the best.

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