The term “hackathon” is the combination of “hack” and “marathon,” but don’t let the word “hack” fool you. In this context, hacking refers to inventive problem-solving. Essentially, we like to think of hackathons as invention marathons, where people gather to collaborate on all types of software projects. The stated objective is to create a functioning prototype but most attendees are there to learn new skills, meet new people, and get hands-on experience. 

Born in the tech scenes of New York and Silicon Valley, hackathons have evolved into a worldwide phenomenon that transcends the boundaries of computer science. Today, hackathons are no longer just about coding. They have become hotbeds of technology, collaboration, and learning. Whether you’re a high school student, a college undergrad, or a professional, hackathons provide a platform for anyone to transform ideas into reality.

But what is a hackathon? Major League Hacking (MLH) has a unique insight into the ecosystem. As the official student hackathon league, supporting 200+ hackathons annually to inspire and cultivate tech skills in more than 700,000 developers worldwide, MLH has the inside scoop on the history of hackathons, hackathon best practices, types of hackathons as well as how to get involved or organize your own hackathon. 

Famous Products and Apps Born at Hackathons

Wondering if hackathons yield actual results? Absolutely, they do! Hackathons have been the birthplace of ideas that evolved into revolutionary products and multimillion-dollar companies. A few standout examples:

  1. Cosmos Browser: Internet Via Texts. Developed by the University of Michigan hackathon, Cosmos Browser made internet access possible through text messages in underserved areas. It gained swift funding and media attention from FastCompany and Engadget.
  2. Workflow: A Hackathon Gem. Also from the University of Michigan hackathon, Workflow skyrocketed to the top of the iOS app store. It grabbed Apple’s Design Award and even secured a Thiel Fellowship for its creators.
  3. GroupMe: A $85 Million Story. GroupMe started as a group messaging app at a hackathon and was acquired by Microsoft for $85 million within a year.

General Hackathon Structure

By now, you can probably see the value in hackathons. But what is going on behind the scenes, and how exactly do they work? We’ll get into how to organize a hackathon in a moment, but first, let’s consider the structure of a typical hackathon, and what goes on at one of these events.

It starts with the introduction, which sets the tone for the entire event. Organizers often utilize multimedia presentations or keynote speakers to not only go over the hackathon’s purpose but also to inject some motivation into the atmosphere. Some introductions might even include a keynote from industry professionals or alumni. 

Right after the warm welcomes come the rules. This isn’t mere housekeeping—it’s crucial for a level playing field. Organizers detail the submission process, code of conduct, and all essential deadlines. They might use a slide presentation, and often this is shared digitally as well—so participants can refer back to it as they work.

Once ground rules are established, the floor opens for teams to form. To help participants form a team, the event organizers will often host an event to help group folks with similar interests and skill-levels together. At some hackathons, you have the option to work alone but you’ll get more out of the event by joining a team. 

With teams formed, the collaboration begins. This is the hackathon’s core and often runs uninterrupted for hours or even days. Workspaces are abuzz with laptops, whiteboards, and open source tools. Teams divide tasks based on skills and synchronize their efforts, often using version control systems like Git and real-time collaboration platforms such as Discord or Slack.

Upon completion of projects, teams present their solutions to a panel of judges, often experts in the field. This is a critical examination. Teams are expected to demonstrate the functionality of their projects and may field questions about their approach, the tech stack used, and any challenges overcome. Judging criteria are usually shared in advance and might include innovation, technical difficulty, and social impact.

A networking session usually closes out the event. This is where you can get one-on-one time with industry leaders, pick the brains of judges, or connect with potential mentors. It’s also an ideal time for teams to reflect on their projects, exchange contact information, and discuss the potential future of their creations.

Types of Hackathons

The term hackathon encompasses a few different varieties. Student hackathons are the most likely event you’ll stumble across online. Attracting all students, from absolute beginners to experienced developers, student hackathons fast-track the development process and provide students with valuable technical and career skills. Hackathons are a fun way to teach students how to turn their ideas into real applications.

Hackathons that are application-specific concentrate on creating software or solutions for a particular platform or technology. For example, there may be an entire hackathon dedicated to Android app development. These events offer an intensive learning environment for those interested in mastering a specific application or software suite.

In a similar vein, language-specific hackathons center around coding in particular programming languages. Whether it’s Python for data science or JavaScript for web development, participants come together to build projects using a shared programming language. These hackathons are ideal for those who are looking to deepen their expertise in languages like C++ or Java.

Industry-specific hackathons zero in on distinct sectors such as healthcare, finance, or education. Participants might develop a new financial algorithm, an innovative educational app, or a healthcare solution that makes medical records more accessible. These events often attract professionals from the respective industries, providing a unique opportunity for cross-discipline collaboration.

Corporate hackathons are organized by businesses like Google and Amazon to stimulate innovation either within the company or to engage the broader tech community. These often come with the potential for job offers, partnerships, or even direct investment in a product developed during the hackathon.

For those who prefer the comfort of their own homes, online hackathons are increasingly popular. With just a stable internet connection, you can collaborate with a global community of developers and creatives. The digital format opens up endless possibilities for teamwork and idea exchange.

Internal vs. external hackathons

Two flavors of hackathons will come up frequently: internal and external. Internal hackathons are typically closed events held within an organization. They aim to foster innovation among employees and often serve as team-building exercises. Companies use these events to accelerate product development and encourage creative thinking in a relaxed setting.

External hackathons are open to the general public and usually bring together a larger and more diverse group of participants. These events are high-stakes, often featuring substantial prizes and greater media attention, making them a thrilling experience for both newcomers and seasoned hackathon participants.

How to Organize a Hackathon

Organizing a hackathon is no small feat—it requires meticulous planning and execution. Whether you’re looking to organize your hackathon, or are interested in attending one and want to see how the sausage is made, it helps to know what goes into it. 

Organizing a hackathon comes down to covering a few different aspects, each of which can be fleshed out more by asking the following questions.

Why are you organizing a hackathon?

First and foremost, you must establish clear goals. Are you aiming to solve a specific industry problem, spark some hype around a new technology, or perhaps foster community engagement? Your goals will serve as the foundation for all subsequent planning.

Who are you trying to engage?

Next, pinpoint your target audience. Your goals will significantly influence this decision. For instance, if you aim to build a culture of innovation within your organization, an internal hackathon engaging employees could be your best route. 

On the other hand, if community engagement or brand building is the objective, consider targeting a broader audience, ranging from high school and college students to industry professionals.

How will you engage your audience?

This part is largely up to what type of hackathon. If it’s online, then you don’t need to worry about a venue. But if it is offline, whether internal or external, you’ll have to consider where the event will take place.

Your choice of venue is influenced by the audience and the event’s scale; it could be a local community center for smaller, in-person events or a robust digital platform for larger, virtual ones. Different venues come with varying costs. So, paying attention to how you’re going to finance the whole thing is important too. That’s when considering sponsors can come in handy.

Sponsors can play a crucial role in hackathons by providing financial support and prizes that can significantly enhance participant engagement. 

You also want to think about rules in your hackathon. When it comes to rules and event structure, clarity is king. Make sure the guidelines are straightforward and accessible, so everyone knows what to expect and how to prepare.

How to Get Involved

As we’ve explored, hackathons are incredible platforms for powering innovation, professional growth, and community engagement. Major League Hacking offers a unique ecosystem for people interested in attending, hosting, or sponsoring hackathons of all types around the world. 

We exist to nurture this bustling community of innovators and provide a supportive platform for those eager to learn, build, and grow.

Hackathon Resources

Below are some resources to get you started on your hackathon journey!