For developer relations and marketing professionals, hackathons serve as a valuable lens through which to view emerging technology trends. These time-crunched, collaborative events are often where tomorrow’s game-changing technologies make their debut.

Major League Hacking (MLH) has the unique opportunity to see these technology trends as they emerge. Twice a year, MLH conducts a comprehensive survey that garners over 10,000 responses from the student developer community. Additionally, MLH receives between 10,000 and 20,000 hackathon project submissions annually!

This data is extremely valuable—not only does it give the industry a broad overview of how technology is evolving, but it also helps developer relations and marketing professionals strategically realign their platforms and educational initiatives to meet the demands of the next generation of developers. MLH’s survey and submission data has been used to identify trends up to two years earlier than they’re reflected in the industry.  

Let’s take a look at the five emerging trends we are seeing from hackathons, along with why they are happening. 

1. Decline of DIY Machine Learning, Rise of Prebuilt Models

The machine learning and artificial intelligence community is seeing a monumental shift thanks to the advances the industry has made over the last year.

Data Insights

  • OpenAI’s ranking soared by 78 places in 2023, now ranking 13th most popular technology at hackathons.
  • TensorFlow lost 11 places, ranking 28th in 2023
  • 90% of student respondents are eager to learn more about AI/ML in the upcoming year

By ranking technologies by how often they appear in student hackathon projects we can get a feel for trends just starting in the industry. A jump in rankings like OpenAI’s suggests that students find it increasingly relevant for quick and innovative solutions, which is a hallmark of hackathons.

With platforms like OpenAI and their product ChatGPT—generative AI tools that are prebuilt and pretuned—surging in rankings, it’s clear that the preference is shifting towards utilizing prebuilt models over creating custom machine learning algorithms from scratch. This is reflected in the decline of lower-level machine learning tools like TensorFlow and OpenCV in hackathon submissions.

But why the change of heart? The most obvious reason is that OpenAI and ChatGPT offer “off-the-shelf” capabilities that simply haven’t been available before. Developer career paths are undergoing a shift, and intuitive learners are taking the first steps to future-proof their careers by learning more about these new technologies outside the classroom. 

Prebuilt models have a significant speed advantage. Prebuilt models often come with APIs and well-documented use-cases, making it much simpler to integrate them into projects. In a hackathon, where time is of the essence, using a prebuilt model can save hours, if not days, of algorithm training and tuning.

Plus, companies like OpenAI have enormous datasets and computational power at their disposal, making their pre-trained models more reliable and accurate than some of the more DIY methods.

2. The Meteoric Rise of TypeScript

Why is TypeScript gaining so much popularity over JavaScript and other languages? What does it mean for both hackathons and the broader developer ecosystem? Well, a few things—let’s talk about them!

Data Insights

  • TypeScript jumped to 14th most used technology in 2023 from not even being in the Top 25 in 2021.
  • 40% of students said they have used TypeScript extensively over the past year, marking a 19% increase, year over year.

TypeScript’s strongly typed nature makes your code not only more readable but also easier to maintain. Your codebase benefits from clarity and straightforward debugging—essential features in the high-stakes environment of a hackathon, but also quite valuable in the industry as a whole.

Unlike JavaScript, TypeScript catches type-related errors during compilation, not when the code is running. This makes debugging considerably more manageable, especially as a project grows in complexity. This combined with the larger rise of Typescript in industry means students are using it earlier and more often in their projects.

3. Fall in Mobile App Development

One trend that’s hard to ignore in the shifting tech landscape is the declining popularity of traditional mobile app development platforms. While mobile apps are still important, emerging data signals a shift in focus among developers.

Data Insights

  • Android Studio lost 20 places, and Swift lost 14 places in technology rankings for 2023.

The drop in rankings for Android Studio and Swift could be partly attributed to the growing appeal of web-based technologies that offer cross-platform compatibility. For instance, frameworks like React Native allow developers to write code once and deploy it across multiple platforms. 

Students may be interpreting the growing trend of Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) as a plausible replacement for native mobile apps. PWAs have gained significant traction, offering the best of both worlds—web reach and app-like interaction. They are easier and quicker to develop compared to native mobile apps, and this often makes them a tempting option for hackathon projects.

But this can create a problem. As traditional mobile app development continues to decline, we could see a widening talent gap for Android and iOS-specific skills. Businesses may find it increasingly challenging to hire people with these specialized mobile skills.

For those in developer relations, this trend suggests a need to reevaluate the tools and platforms you offer to your community. With the increasing shift toward web-based and cross-platform technologies, optimizing for these options may attract a larger audience of developers, particularly those just now entering the field.  

4. Student Developers Love Educational Videos

YouTube is the new classroom. The visual and freely accessible nature of YouTube makes it an effective platform for technology education, with tutorials, walkthroughs, and project demos offering developers a practical approach to learning. Many developers also tune into panel discussions, interviews, and tech reviews to keep up with industry trends.

Data Insights

  • YouTube stands as the leading channel for developers wanting to learn about technology, with almost 22% of developers favoring it for their studies.
  • 15% of developers surveyed claimed Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as well as chat communities such as Discord, Slack, and Telegram, as their primary resource for learning and updates. 
  • Surprisingly, more conventional study sites like Udemy and Coursera are favored by even fewer developers, with only 11.56% claiming these platforms to be their preferred study method.

Social media is also growing in popularity due to its more casual nature. Many industry experts and influencers share bite-sized knowledge, updates, and links to more comprehensive materials on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Chat communities are another popular resource for learning. Platforms like Discord, Slack, and Telegram offer community channels where developers can ask questions, share resources, and collaborate on projects in real time. The draw to these platforms is that they allow for a more direct connection to fellow students as well as mentors. 

5. Developers Continue to Introduce New Technologies At Work

Hackathons have long been viewed as a playground for innovation—a space where developers can experiment, collaborate, and bring ideas to life. The high-stakes, time-sensitive environment of a hackathon often leads to rapid prototyping and problem-solving. In essence, hackathons serve as miniature testing grounds where developers can assess the viability, scalability, and practicality of new technologies. 

When these developers transition into the corporate world, it’s no surprise that they bring along their tried-and-tested tech stacks. This is big, especially when it comes to developer relations in larger software companies. But how?

Data Insights

  • A substantial 37% of MLH alumni have introduced technology they first encountered at a hackathon into production at their workplaces.

Hackathons act as a bridge between cutting-edge technology and mainstream corporate adoption. Developers exposed to new technologies during events like hackathons later become advocates for those same tools and platforms. Once a technology is added into a developer’s toolkit – it’s likely it’s there to stay.

Today’s hackathon participants might be tomorrow’s decision-makers and thought leaders, so supporting a hackathon by sponsoring or partnering with one can bring a unique opportunity to introduce your platforms and tools to a highly engaged and influential audience.

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