My First Hackathon

The term “hackathon” sounds pretty intimidating when you don’t have coding experience.

I mean, not many of us can identify with this guy:

This article is meant to shed light on what a hackathon is and how this type of event can be beneficial for anyone of any background.

What is a hackathon, really?

Ok Google, what is a “hackathon”?

Google: A hackathon is an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.

This is true. But, programming isn’t the only thing that goes down. A hackathon is pretty much comparable to a game jam, where you join a team of people to plan, design, and develop a project (whether it’s a game, app, website — you name it) within a short span of time (usually up to 48 hours).

The more, the merrier. Source.

You don’t have to be a programmer to kick butt at a hackathon.

As my team and I have been organizing an upcoming VR hackathon for Seattle, I have been getting emails and messages from all sorts of people regarding the hackathon. There seems to be a pattern in what they say:

“I have no idea how to code. Does that mean I can’t attend?”

“Would I even be useful at this sort of event?”

“That hackathon sounds amazing but also…terrifying.”


Let me tell you this: you do not have to be a programmer to excel at a hackathon. Sure, development experience is a huge plus, but there’s more to a project than just code!

Think about all the work that goes into a VR experience:

Narrative design

Immersive audio


Software development

Hardware configuration

Voice-over (Yes, I’ve seen voice actors at past hackathons)

3D art

Environment design

User experience (UX) design


At a hackathon, you can take on any role(s) you want. Even if you don’t feel like you fit in one of the above categories, you can make up your own as you go.

You could be the “Brainstorming Wizard”, even. I mean, every team needs some magical ideas.


“I’m brainstormin’ erryday, yo!” Source

I once attended a hackathon where a participant didn’t dive into a certain area, but instead took on team lead to make sure everyone was on the same page. She boosted her team’s spirit with epic dance moves and Snicker bars. She was a big part of the reason why her team took home the winning prize.

10 hackathon stories

In order to better understand how different types of people experience hackathons, I reached out to past participants to gather their stories, insights, and advice for future hackers like you:

1. Liv Erikson | @misslivirose:

“I’ve attended quite a few hackathons over the past few years — sometimes as a mentor, and other times as a developer — ranging from huge collegiate hackathons to very small, targeted hackathons for individual VR and AR companies.
The first time I attended a hackathon, I was really nervous, but it turned out to be a really awesome way to spend a weekend learning new technologies and just having a lot of fun with friends. Working on a project is one of the best ways to pick up new skills, and hackathons are a great way to do that, especially because you get to be creative with the problems you solve.
I definitely recommend that everyone should go to a hackathon at least once — think about what roles you might want to try out, and figure out what kind of technology you’re interested in learning to help choose what might be a good fit.
You’ll get exposed to new people, new libraries, new tools, new processes — and walk away with something that didn’t exist a few days prior, which is awesome!”

2. Qifan Xi

“I attended a 24-hour hackathon at my university hosted by Facebook, and also one run internally by my group at Amazon. In both cases I was an engineer on a team of 3 or 4 people.
My first experience with a hackathon was nuts. Facebook literally ran the event for 24 hours straight, providing enough food and caffeine to keep us going until the end. It was *incredibly* well supported (which I didn’t expect) and had a surprisingly high number of people staying until the end for demos and pitches (which I also didn’t expect). Seeing something go from “naw this is a dumb idea” to “holy s**t it actually works and I am holding it in my hand” in less than a day was a great feeling.
Hackathons are really valuable for making friends and meeting new people. I’ve made personal and professional connections from doing hackathons and still stay in touch with some of the hackers from college.
You also get to work with every stage of the product life-cycle, which is something that you can be pretty isolated from during a regular office job — for example, I did some UX design work at my workplace hackathon and got to work really closely with a UI designer on our team!
My tip for hackers would be to come with an open mind, a cool idea (or two), and be prepared to make some friends!
Definitely scale down the scope of your hackathon project. Hackathons are a great place to try new things (technologies, libraries, hardware, etc.) but stuff is 100% guaranteed to break in a weird way and you’ll spend half your time debugging something really simple. It’s always more impressive (and more fun) to have a small-ish project working *really well* than having a big project fail to come together by the end frown emoticon
And spend a lot of time on polish! The bests-in-show are always groups that are “basically done” by the halfway mark and then put the rest of their effort into making it fun and delightful and easy to use and show off.
I would 110% encourage my friends to attend a hackathon.”

3. Seanna Musgrave | @evilseanbot:

“I’ve been to lots of VR hackathons: hackathons for trans people, game jams, etc etc. I almost always do engineering, but I have also done design, specifically game design.
I met a lot of good friends at the game jams organized in Portland. It’s somewhat rare but when I work with people who are more technically knowledgeable I find it as a great opportunity to learn. I’ve also gotten into a festival based on work from a game jam.
My advice to future hackers is to pick people you want to work with. Small teams are great for making well-designed things. Large teams are interesting socially and I enjoy them a lot, but they will more likely result in not getting anything done or not being able to contribute.”

4. Deniz Ergurel | @denizergurel:

“I am a tech journalist. During my career I covered several hackathon events, participated in a few hackathons and design thinking workshops myself.
I do believe that hackathons are a great way of getting things done in the fastest way possible. It helps you to polish your creativity by forcing you to think in different ways, and plus you meet some very new, interesting people.
One of the first hackathon events that I attended (as a journalist) was in Istanbul with PayPal. It was a very well thought and organized event and it went smoothly.
Recently I joined a “short” media hackathon event at Hacks/Hackers CUNY. I met very interesting people from various media organizations. I learned new ways of building solutions for problems, and had the opportunity of testing out some ideas, especially for VR.”

5. Evie Powell, Ph.D. | @parasiteEvie

“My favorite hackathons are game jams (which are hackathons for games). My favorites are Global Game Jam and Ludem Dare. I tend to take on a designer / programmer type role, but I’ll also take on a musician / sound engineer position in rare cases.
My first hackathon was great! It was the very first Global Game Jam. I’m not really sure what I expected back then, but I think that it really helped me get a feel for what I can and can’t do in 48 hours. I think everyone’s first hackathon is a lesson on project-scoping and time management. There is so much you want to accomplish, but getting a 4 person team on the same page is a chore in and of itself. So when you think about it, 48 hours is not a lot of time at all for coming up with a game idea, setting up the project, downloading the appropriate tools, building a game, testing the game and getting feedback, submitting the game and writing a final presentation. It’s a whirlwind! And on top of that, you have to find time to sleep!
I’ve used hackathons to do many things. I’ve used them to learn a new tool or technology; introduce new hackers into the wonderful world of game development; to meet and work with new teammates and gauge whether we work well together; build a game about a topic I felt very strongly about; the list goes on and on really.
Just try it. No matter what, you’ll be a better developer because of it.”
CEO / Creative Director Verge of Brilliance LLC

6. Joshua Warchol | @Jwarchol:

A weekend hackathon completely ignited my interest in electronics, Arduino, and the maker movement. I’m mostly a web developer specializing in API and back-end work. While I worked for Vibes Media in Chicago, as part of an effort to build morale among the engineers, we were given a nice little budget to hold a weekend hackathon. The first idea we settled upon was a low-pressure water jet deterrent for pigeons messing up our office balcony with their droppings. So we endeavored to create a webcam-connected, owl-shaped, twin-axis gimbals pigeon squirter in a weekend.
I’d only done basic circuits in college, no embedded systems programming, but a bunch of web coders dove in trying to tackle something we knew nothing about. We got friends to come over and tear apart a pressure washer and help us wrangle this Frankenstein monster into some form of working. A local artist friend even contributed to make it look Carnival Fabulous. We had a blast and it put me on an obsessive path learning about electronics, servos, stepper motors, sensors, and loads more. It’s even found application in my real work as I add hardware hacking to my toolbox of open source knowledge.”

7. Jazmin Cano | @JC_3D

“I’ve attended the hackathons last year and this year in San Francisco as an artist and designer of the experience. For the first hackathon, I wanted to do something small, quick, and cute so that we could do it from start to finish that weekend. My goal was to make an experience even my grandma could enjoy. My partner was the developer who put it all together and built it for Gear VR (which I could do myself now-it’s so easy to learn Unity). For an AT&T hackathon, most people there were mobile developers who hadn’t done anything for VR, so my role in the team was Unity Wizard. I collected everyone’s scripts and put them together in Unity to make them function with each other. That project was a mix of CGI and 360 video. It was my first time not being an artist, so that was a cool experience.
Going into the first VR hackathon, I kind of knew what to expect because I assumed it was similar to a game jam-which is another type of sit-down-and-build-cool-stuff event. Except since it wasn’t specific to games, it was more freeing to be able to build anything and everything.
I’ve gotten “KISS” out of hackathons. It’s really a race against time and your own wild dreams. Keep It Simple Stupid. It really changed my approach to production. I have that mindset now of just getting it done. Talk can only get you so far but working on your skills and gaining the capabilities to show what you’re talking about is what gets you far in your own career. That, and I also learned lots of neat tricks and tips and shortcuts from working among other artists and VR developers.
My tips for future hackers is don’t be shy! Advertise your skills. People need diverse backgrounds to build great teams. Also, don’t forget to drink water, bring a flash drive, and work towards your deadline being an hour before it’s actually due. Things never go as planned. Specifically for VR Hackathons, biggest tip is to have hand sanitizer and/or Lysol disinfectant wipes. People get sick at these things and germs spread…let’s do our part and prevent the bound-to-happen VR Eye Disease.”

8. Muhamed AlGhzawi | @mmg_rt

“The best thing about attending a hackathon is that you’ll meet experts, people like you, and people who want to be like you. You’ll learn new things, see how other people go about creating the things you want to create, and help people along the way.
My first hackathon was held by Microsoft about Windows development. I learned a lot. After the hackathon I launched my big app, which was developed in 2 months and got featured in the Windows store more than 5 times.
I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t attended the hackathon.”

9. Rena Sugihara

“I’ve attended two hackathons so far, one at my university and the other was the Comedy Hack Day in Santa Monica, CA. I attended both as a designer.
The one at my college was my first hackathon experience. I was quite intimidated by other attendees and what I needed to produce as a designer because I wasn’t very familiar with designing something other than buildings (I’m in architecture major). It was also my first time seeing software engineering/web development in action, which was eye-opening. Since I didn’t know what to expect, I guess there was nothing different from “what I imagined a hackathon to be” but certainly different from what I had been exposed to.
Through both hackathons, I learned to not be afraid of making executive decisions and taking the leadership, especially as I was the only designer in the team at both occasions. I also gained friendships.
To the future hackers: don’t sweat the small stuff and focus on getting the idea/concept/point across. Hackathons are not meant for producing complete, perfected products, and it is okay that the product has rough edges and little glitches.
I would definitely encourage my friends to go to hackathons. Amazing things happen when we have major time constraints and stress, and I think it’s a nice change from spending days, weeks, or even months on one product or project like we usually do.”

10. Aharon Robinson

“Hackathons are an opportunity to explore new and big ideas. It is truly your license to take risks and challenge the norm.
The first time that I had heard of a hackathon, I had assumed that it was a bunch of experts breaking into the CIA and Facebook accounts. I assumed, based on the name, that it wasn’t for me and that I was not qualified to participate. It was only until some good friends invited me to an on-campus hackathon that I learned that I was completely wrong.
At my first hackathon, I quickly found that most people were trying something new, learning something new, and no one was hacking into the CIA. The scene was chaotic with students running back and forth with their laptops and gadgets, and guzzling down junk food. I joined in on the fun and tried creating my first hack which was a device that allowed you to control an MP3 player with your eyes. Even though I had finished my project a number of hours after the hackathon ended, I had this finished product that I could now use anywhere.
From that point on, I was hooked. I needed my fix of hackathons and I went on to creating a personal assistant, 3D audio headphones, a Windows app that crawls the Internet to find news/YouTube videos that are custom to your taste, a mobile augmented reality headset, and a VR phone call app that puts you and anyone else in the same virtual living room through Skype/Google+.
The underlying story behind all of these hacks is that I had no idea how to make them before I started hacking. I learned along the way, and this is the beauty of hackathons. It is an opportunity to learn and try new and exciting things. I encourage everyone to take that first step and attend a hackathon. Work on an exciting idea (even if that means you have to work alone). There is no such thing as failure, because you can’t fail at being creative. Finally, dream big because there is no better moment than in a hackathon to try something that no one else has tried.”

So, yes, you should try out a hackathon!

These stories reveal that you could be a complete newb or an experienced professional and you’ll still leave a hackathon with new skills, portfolio pieces, and friendships.

Post-hackathon. Source.

You might go into a hackathon with a specific goal, or you might have no clue what you want to learn. And that’s okay! Hackathons are a great way to discover what you do want to learn.

I’ve found that the majority of hackers will happily take the time to walk you through things you’d like to know more about. I sat next to one of my teammates at the last hackathon and stared at his screen while he whipped out a beautiful 3D model of a door. I gained a much better understanding of the workflow in Blender just by creepin’ over his shoulder.