5 Reasons Why Students Should Join Hackathon

I started joining hackathons when I was a year 3 university student. In the beginning, I had no ideas of what a hackathon was and I was like a blank sheet of paper. After participating in around 20 hackathons, I find myself improved a lot in different aspects and would like to make use of this article to encourage more students to join hackathons.

First of all, you need to have a brief understanding of the meaning of hackathon. Hackathon is a mix of two words which are “Hack” and “Marathon”. By combining the context of these two words, you may have a rough feeling that hackathon is an intensive coding competition. This may be the case of some hackathons (types of hackathons will be explained in another article) or hackathons in the past. Nowadays, most hackathons (at least in Hong Kong) have a lower weighting of the coding part but have a higher focus on the business part. Therefore, based on my observation, hackathons in recent years are more like gathering different domain talents like data scientists, designers, businessmen, and engineers in groups to work on a project in one to three days.

Photo by cyda

Back to the theme of this article, why students should join hackathons?

1. Practise Your Skills with Real-life Problems
In schools, you acquired a lot of theories and knowledge, but you do not have many chances to test your ability. Most of the time, the school will just give you assignments and examination to grade your skills, and the materials used in the assessments are all prepared in a way that are easily used. For instance, my major is Statistics, I usually need to work on data in my assignment, generall speaking, the datasets provided are all structured in table forms and the amount of data is quite limited. However, in hackathons, you will be provided with (or you need to scrape) real data. Thus, you can know the difficulties when you work in companies like how to cleanse the data, transform unstructured data into structured formats and how to use cloud computing to handle big data.

2. Network and Have Knowledge Exchange between Peers
Studying at different schools, the scope of the same major is varied by schools or lecturers. Hackathons provide a very good opportunity for participants to network with people from different backgrounds. Sometimes, you may meet students from oversea schools. Through networking or in their presentation, you can know what techniques or software they used so you can understand what you are lacking in terms of knowledge and skillsets, in another way of speaking, you can estimate your competitiveness in the job market.

3. Meet Experienced Mentors to Acquire Industrial Knowledge
To help participants improve their idea, usually, there are mentor sessions in hackathons. Organizers will invite their senior employees to be mentors who will talk to participants and comment on their ideas before the final presentation. The main reason for having mentors in the venue is to allow people who are fresh to that industry can know the business concerns and focuses on the problem statements that are provided by the organisers. Being a student, you may not have any ideas about different industries, you can make good use of the mentor session to know better the nature of the industries and the culture of different companies.

4. Know More about New Technologies
Organisers may partner with different tech companies like AWS, Google, and Microsoft to offer pre-hackathon workshops on how to use their cloud services. For non-technical people, you can know how to use some handy tools to do programming, and for technical people, you can know alternatives to complete the tasks.
For hackathons with themes on very new or uncommon technologies like blockchain or drones. There may also be briefing sessions that are provided by domain experts so participants can have a fair understanding of the topics.

5. Awards
There are usually three main types of awards in hackathons which are cash awards, prizes & trophies, and job opportunities. Especially for hackathons that are targeted at students, they will provide internships to selected participants (even they are not the winners). Some companies organise hackathons as a candidate selection process, through mentor sessions, different management team heads can talk to participants directly and they may know the strength or the weakness of participants, so they can tell if that participant is a good fit to their teams.
If you find your dream company will hold a hackathon, you should apply for the competition. This may be a shortcut for you to get into that company or at least you have a chance to talk to the managers directly and see if you are fitting in the company’s culture.
Awards can also be intangible things like the friendships you established in hackathons, some people find like-minded persons and launch a startup.

The five reasons listed are just some common benefits that I found can apply to most of the people. There are lots more goods joining hackathons, but you can only discover after you participated in one.
Hope you find this article useful and stay tuned if you want to know more about hackathons =)