Everything you need to know before your first hackathon.

When you imagine a hackathon, you may picture sleepy developers tapping at keyboards into the early morning, fraught with nervous energy and physical exhaustion. Did we just have a great idea — or is that the caffeine-high?

But what are they really, and are they for you?

A hackathon is, in the most basic terms, a marathon hacking event. It’s a test of both your physical endurance and your ability to rapidly build a workable MVP for a panel of cross-industry judges.

Gil Creque, Curriculum and Software Developer at Codecraft Works, called a hackathon “an extended period of time, typically more than a day, where people are concentrating, building projects of some sort — either something they want to do, or as part of a community effort.”

It goes like this: you walk into a room with a hundred other “hackers,” all with a diverse set of skills and interests. You come up with an idea, form a team and rally around a project. Then you have 36 hours to build something from scratch to impress all the judges and take home the grand prize.

So, who’s this for? A pretty wide variety of people can find value in hackathons. Obviously, there will be software and hardware development folks. But even if you can’t code, a hackathon is a great place to meet people and try something new, whether that’s branding, marketing or design. After all, someone has to sell the judges on the project and the team.

There are also mentors, people with industry-proven experience across all stages of development. They’re there to help teams get where they’re going, fine-tune their product and prepare presentations. They’re good people to have in your corner, even after the event ends.

Hackathons are an excellent opportunity for students and professionals to build their network, practice some real-world team-building, and learn a ton of stuff.

According to Gil, communication is one of the biggest challenges for teams at multidisciplinary events. Having creatives attempting to manage developers can be a learning experience for both.

“Both sets of people are trying to find their way and getting them to communicate clearly and effectively can be an issue. But it can also be a really good opportunity for people to learn how that works. That’s the coolest experience, especially if they’re students.”

Mike Cross, a software developer at Skymantics, said that at the cybersecurity hackathon he attended, lack of teamwork could be a huge obstacle to taking home the grand prize. “You actually have to communicate effectively and be diplomatic, if no one wants to work with you — you won’t get anything done.”

Mike said that was where he got a lot of value out of the event.

“It wasn’t 100% totally realistic, but it was good practice for working in a professional environment where you have to work with other people as part of a security team. Especially having just come out of college and not having done that before.”

For more experienced developers, hackathons can also serve as an opportunity to test theories in a low-risk setting. With no one to report to but yourself and your team, these events can be a great testing ground for the startup-curious, with no pressure to press on with a project that doesn’t feel like it’s working.

Hackathons can help form and grow communities as well. At a Drupal conference Gil attended, there was a one-night hackathon where they worked on improving the software together, as a community. After the event, Gil said “the people who stayed… are the people I can always go to with questions I have when I’m developing in Drupal. We have a rapport, we know each other really well — I can ask them questions and it’s not a big deal, whereas before, I only kind of knew them.”

Hackathons can be labor-intensive and expensive to host — that’s where sponsors come in. Companies get to showcase their culture as one facilitating innovation and personal development and have the opportunity to meet talent in its natural habitat: building and creating. It’s a win-win.

If you’re getting ready for your first hackathon or if you’re on the fence about signing up for one, check out these tips for newcomers.

Watch out for imposter syndrome. One of the greatest obstacles to joining technical build events is the feeling that you’re not as experienced or as knowledgeable as other attendees. Gil says not to worry about it, “everyone feels the same way. You may not have the most experience, but you do know something.”

Bring a notebook and write stuff down. With everything that’s going on — from networking to project-building to in-depth workshops, make sure that you’ve prepared a way to take the information back with you. Even if you’re just writing down topics to research later.

Talk to everyone about everything. “If you’re not talking to other people and networking, you’re kind of missing out on half of the point of the conference,” Mike said. It’s the only way to take advantage of the more far-reaching opportunities these events provide, like job opportunities and great connections that might be really useful down the road. “You want to talk to people who either don’t know stuff that you know or vice versa, because that’s the entire point. It’s about learning stuff together.”

Don’t think of yourself as particularly sociable, or good at breaking the ice? Mike said that the easiest way is to talk about something technical that interests you or that you’d like to learn more about. After all, everyone’s there for the same thing.

The best advice is to just get started. In his experience with students and young coders, Gil said that “most people think this is a huge, daunting thing. It’s really just about getting started. You’ll be surprised at what you can do.” And in places like hackathons, you’re in good company — with tons of people ready to help.

We’re launching our first hackathon, November 2nd through the 4th. At Hack the IRL, a hundred developers, creatives and innovators will have 36 hours to hack through some of the biggest environmental challenges facing the Indian River Lagoon. Find out more or apply for free here.

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