Hackathons and You: The Definitive Guide

Student writer: Mahir Jethanandani
Student editors: Claire Dubiel, Belicia Tan
23andMe editor: Thao Do

A hackathon is an event where people join together to create new inventions, designs, and prototypes, often with a theme or concept in mind. One misconception of hackathons is that they are computer science-related, or that they solely demand programmers who are wired to crush energy drinks and produce code at alarming speeds. Absolutely not!

Programming is one facet of inventions that solve software requirements in any complex, massive project. Hackathons around the world can be focused on architectural design, hardware engineering, artistry, or biomedical devices. To participate in a hackathon, one does not need to know how to print ‘Hello World!’ in a multitude of languages; instead, one simply should understand the challenges that may come from a lack of expertise required to complete the project.

When applying to hackathons, be honest about your experience! More often than not, hackathon organizers and developers hope to achieve a  balance between all types of skill sets, from new hackathon enthusiasts to hardcore hackathon-lifers. whether wireframes or full-blown GitHub repositories, personal projects such as these done with passion, are all welcome. Coursework of any educational level is a fantastic indicator to explain your technical background in a subject. High school biology, online courses, or Khan Academy tracks all show passion at almost the cost of nothing. Any sort of experience is valued. As long as you show interest and have no underlying intentions of swiping hackathon goodies and leaving, you should be in the clear!


Congratulations! You have been accepted to the hackathon of your choice. While it’s not necessary to have a solidified idea going into a hackathon, it helps to have rough ideas in mind. The clearer your intentions are, the easier it is to find similar participants to collaborate with. Most hackathons will have Facebook groups and event pages to find teammates; even cold messaging doesn’t hurt. A group can be found at the hackathon, but the chaos of most hackathons make it difficult to gather a group. Once you join a group, identify worthwhile ideas to pursue and roles for each person in the group. Much like a startup, these roles will change and you are likely to wear several hats over the duration of the hackathon.

On the day of the hackathon, it helps to arrive early, mix and mingle with people, and find a place to call home for the bundle of hours or days, or the weekend you will be there for. Beforehand, it helps to stock up on living essentials like a sleeping bag or toiletries. It’s difficult to anticipate what will be provided at the hackathon, let alone the demand for such goods, so come prepared! Food, at the very least, should be covered for you. One of the misconceptions with hackathons is that these events are non-stop, no-sleep events for pure hackers. Of course not! Physical and mental health should be everyone’s top priority, and sleep and rest must be ensured. There have been incidents in the past where people collapse at hackathons and do not take care of their health. Be mindful of these issues, and know when to take a break.

As for the process of hacking, be mindful of your group and everyone’s strengths. Should you not work in a group, be mindful of your own limitations. A working minimal viable product (MVP) is difficult to pull off in such a short span, but do your best. The worst case situation is that you have a valuable side project and a rich experience to better your skill set. The groups that compete at some of the top hackathons are top-notch, so don’t get bogged down in the results. It’s a bonding experience for all those curious and passionate about hackathons. Be respectful, kind, and excited for one another as each person takes on the hackathon. Soon enough, you will be a veteran and wish you could relive your first hackathon experience.  


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