On the Growth of the Hackathon Culture

In the past couple of years, the collegiate tech community has revitalized itself further than ever before.  As technological advancements continue to increase exponentially, so too are the social and practical opportunities with which students can familiarize themselves.  Hackathons have become such a tool.  From the rewards and projects teams create to the overall networking and learning experience of it all, they are are serving as a vital spark of inspiration needed in today’s STEM circles. There is a movement out there taking university tech communities by storm, and we’re living right in the middle of its takeoff.  Here’s why Fordham should be taking part.

Hackathons are probably the best extracurriculars currently out there for student entrepreneurs, designers, programmers, engineers, and builders in general.  By Wikipedia’s definition, it’s a portmanteau of the word “hack” and “marathon”, events in which programmers meet to do collaborative computer programming.  One could argue this could be equated with a simple group project at school, but that is where the difference lies: when standing in the middle of one, you can almost feel the vibrancy and life propagating through the air around you.  Everyone is motivated and determined to learn something new and to simply make.  While our universities sometimes struggle to support every student’s creativity and development, students nationwide are rallying in an attempt to pick up the pieces — and it’s working wonders.

You may be thinking that the term “hack” is a reason to raise eyebrows, and it is true that it carries its negative connotations.  It is an overloaded term, however, meaning that there are several other, more deserving connotations, with the simplest one meaning, “create”. Inventing and nurturing an idea into reality is the core of this movement, not breaking into systems and accessing data.  Hackathons focus on the lighter, more positive side to development: one of the reasons why it has become such a large phenomenon in so short a time period.  People are presented with the opportunity to learn a new skill, test a new idea, and to try something out without taking it too seriously.

The basic formula for an average hackathon usually boils down to the following: (idea + technology – sleep) ÷ a team = your hack.  A typical “hack” can take the form of a number of projects, such as a websites, a mobile app, wearable technology, and robots, to name a few.  Notable hacks have actually gone on to become successful startups such as “GroupMe”, the popular messaging app, which was acquired by Skype for $85 million a year after its inception. Or you could take features that have become popular in other ways, such as the Facebook Like button.  Twitter itself was conceived in a hackathon!  The best part is that little to none of the team or their project exists prior to the event aside from an idea.  Aside from the central motif of not beginning your work until the event, there are usually no rules, no template, and no set structure to how teams go about this. Students gather to a venue, network and brainstorm with completely new people, and within hours, are set to making their vision happen. Everyone brings something different to the table, whether it be a great mind for design, impeccable coding prowess, or a strong engineering foundation.  All the elements present in an actual technology company are right there in that moment. Glancing at all the scratchwork with which their game plans have been set and tasks split up accordingly, one gets the impression that they are walking through a room where dozens of miniature start-ups have been thrust into existence, working furiously for a working demo to display by the competition’s end.  And even when the event ends, it does not necessarily mean that the project does.

This “rapid prototyping” all gets done over the course of one weekend, and is by no means the only thing that increases exponentially.  One particular phrase that comes to mind is “learning on steroids”.  Aside from one’s peers who are always there to help and collaborate, sponsors and recruiters hold a significant presence at these events.  They can range from high-powered startups such as Dropbox and Nest to tech giants like Apple and Facebook.  As these dynamic companies are usually looking to hire new developers, the argument could be made that they are becoming the new replacement for career fairs.  Recruiters are looking for students who have the know-how and motivation to actually build something, and they’re quite right to attend hackathons in search of those new employees.  But even better, they are also there to help.  By mentoring students who may be new to programming, are unfamiliar with a certain interface, or are simply stumped by a roadblock and need help debugging, a relationship is fostered and the work is being experienced side by side between oneself and a mentor, a much more tangible alternative to an interview in this particular field. All the tools one might hope for and would be harder to access at home or on campus, are readily available.

So, to those who may respond with a shrug and the response, “I don’t know how to code”: Just dive in.  There is no better place to immerse yourself and use as a starting point than here, allowing you to, no matter how slight, begin or improve upon your technical skill set.  To quote from Dave Fontenot, founder of one of the country’s largest hackathons, “Technology is not an industry; it’s a tool that is disrupting every industry.  People aren’t technical or non-technical.  Technology is simply a competitive advantage that anyone can add to their skill set.  It’s a force multiplier for everything you do.  It allows you to delimit yourself by replacing rudimentary, repetitive tasks and computation with programs a computer can run in an instant.  If you don’t use it, you are making a decision to pass on the greatest competitive advantage that has ever existed.”  Yes, you will learn how to code.  But more importantly, you’ll see it as a means to an end, and the passion that building that end entails will be what ends up making the decision worthwhile.

This image of the average programmer, developer, and designer is mindblowingly different from the archetypes of decades past, and is going to continue to grow and evolve. The need for developers in the job market today only further confirms this growth. Where the education system can’t keep up, finally, the hackathon has provided a vehicle in which the transformation of the computer scientist and computer science education can take place.  They are taking the main stage, and will only continue to attract the spotlight. By participating in this culture now while it is still on the rise, Fordham will not only be putting its students miles ahead of the competition when they go out into the field, but will be laying the groundwork with which future generations can look to as something they want to be a part of, a culture where the excitement of seeing what they can do with the skills they have learned (or are about to learn) is second nature to everyone involved.  That’s the dream, but for now, awareness and curiosity are the first steps that have to be taken by each individual.  Thus, I offer this appeal to you: if you consider yourself a creator by any standard, or this culture simply sounds neat and intriguing, take the time to get your feet wet, see what all the hype is about, and hopefully it can be the spark for you, too.

The bottom line: more and more people are using this platform and technology to turn their ideas into a reality.  Fordham deserves to take its place on that platform.