The educational side of hackathons

When an 11-year-old Los Angeles girl won $20,000 for an app designed to prevent drunk driving she was one of the more striking examples of the rising trend for hackathons. App developers and creative minds have to come up with a functioning product on a specific theme before a set deadline, testing both their coding skills and ability to work under pressure. But are these 24-hour coding marathons really good news for young people trying to build a career in this field?

Who usually attends hackathons, and what do you need on your CV to be a successful hacker? Alex Jones, marketing and events planner for Digital Shoreditch, says: “The nice thing is that you can come from several different backgrounds, you can be a programmer, you can be a more creative person with ideas, you can be a designer, so a visual person.“

A certain mindset is required to make the best of a hackathon and to have an overall enjoyable experience. Observer types do not fare very well when confronted with such challenges, and it’s best if wannabe hackers are more hands-on. Kam Star, founder of Digital Shoreditch, explains: ”You are going to find people who grew up with a screwdriver or wanted to somehow produce or remix things. The creators, the makers. It’s for innovators, for people who see their own position in life as more than just a consumers.”

Amsterdam hackathon, photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/ter-burg/

Amsterdam hackathon, photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/ter-burg/

Is this enough? Can anyone succeed if they go into a hackathon with the right mentality? According to Jones, participants still need to know about a key field. The great thing is that the path you have to have been walking is by no means narrow. A Halloween themed hackathon on Oct 28, Scareathon 2012 organised by Digital Shoreditch at Ravensbourne College, brought together creators of a mix of ages and coming from a variety of backgrounds. There were architects, computer science students, designers, and even a family with a young girl who decided to spend their Saturday putting together an app to scare people.

The presence of students at hackathons is particularly intriguing, as it raises a rather important question. Are hackathons a place to learn the trade? Stephen Chan, interactive developer at Specialmoves, says: ”Yes, it’s definitely a good place to come and learn. I learned a lot from other developers at hackathons, I learned about new APIs I can use, and at the end you just see what innovation is out there. You’re not the only one that’s going to be doing cool stuff, all people are, that’s one of the good things about this industry.”

According to Star, hackathons are a fantastic place to learn. “It’s a great place to find people who you can learn from, it’s a great place to go and see things you otherwise wouldn’t come across. It is a place where you get to exercise your skill, and produce something in a very short amount of time and the challenge of that can be quite exhilarating.”

Jones, who organised Scareathon 2012, agreed that giving a helping hand is something to be encouraged during hackathons.”Generally people are really happy to help each other at this kind of things, that’s what we’re trying to foster.”

One of the key elements of all hackathons which facilitates learning is the prevalence of teamwork. Star says: “Human beings have evolved in collective-collaborative environments where people are doing things together, and it’s just modern living that has sectioned us into neat boxes.

“What’s quite natural about hackathons is that people will work together, they will work through the night. It’s very bonding and you come out of it with friends. It’s a great place to make friends who are weird like you, because I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that people who like X Factor do.”

The importance of working towards a deadline motivates hackers in a way that they can rarely find at home. A hackathon is about getting things done instead of talking about it, because you have a certain amount of time to produce a working project – and sometimes these projects can be inspiring.

Star says things that get achieved in hackathons are often projects that in a big company might take months or even years to happen. He says people don’t normally go to a hackathon and expect to create something that will change the world, but it does happen, and it’s a real bonus when things like that do happen.

He pointed out that on data.gov.uk there are 800 different apps that have been made from publicly available data, like ‘Is it safe for me to walk home from here to here?’ or ‘Am i going to die if I walk into this hospital?’ Star says that all sorts of different things that have been done with data have been produced as a result of these hacks and they wouldn’t have been produced otherwise.

For students, attending such an event could prove highly motivational. Mihai Dolha, a 20-year-old game developing student from City University London who attended Scareaton 2012, says: “I have never been to such an event before and since I am very fond and passionate about programming I felt it was very inspiring to see people that actually work in the field do an amazing job. I will definitely go to other hackathons to meet more talented and devoted people from whom I can learn the skills I need to, one day, be in their place trying to win the first prize.”

Tips for first timers:
– get a good night sleep beforehand;
– find a good table;
– stay off the Red Bull.

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