What is a Hackathon? Our Beginner’s Guide

If you’re taking your first steps in web development, you’ll have started to see this word pop up. “Ah, yes,” you’ll say, your head nodding confidently. “A hackathon.”

But what is a hackathon actually? Are these mysterious events only for experienced coders, or can newbies also get involved? And how do you go about signing up to them in the first place?

Furthermore, what are participants hacking into? Can you get arrested for taking part in them? Will your mother be worried about what you’re up to?

This quick guide will answer all those questions—well, as many as we can. Feel free to use the clickable menu to skip ahead.

  1. What takes place in a hackathon?
  2. What is a hackathon for?
  3. Are hackathons for beginners?
  4. Why junior web developers should take part in hackathons
  5. How to find hackathons to join
  6. Final thoughts

A pair of hackers sit at a computer pointing at the screens What your mother thinks when you tell her “I’m doing a hackathon this weekend.”

1. What takes place in a hackathon?

The definition of a hackathon is actually quite broad: it’s basically a design sprint for programmers, bringing developers together in teams to collaborate on various projects for a prize.

Hackathons are typically hosted by a tech company, organisation, or collective. Having been around for more than twenty years, these events really took off in the mid-2010s. They have even spread beyond the web and software developer field, being seen as a fun and productive way of collectively tackling a problem in a short space of time.

Typically taking place over a limited time period—usually over one day or a weekend—hackathons involve an intense sprint to the finish. This is part of what makes them so fun! The brave participants often skip sleep for the duration, fuelled by a large amount of snacks and caffeine—supplied by the host, of course.

A simple example of a hackathon would be that teams have a weekend to build a working prototype food app that creates recipes from the ingredients users have in their cupboards.

By participating in a hackathon you’ll learn to produce code in a focused way and to a tight deadline, as well as learning a new web framework to help with the project. Outside of that it’s also a great networking opportunity, giving you the possibility to meet new friends and contacts in the field.

A smiling man and a woman sit at a table during a hackathon, planning their project with a laptop, pens, and paper. What a hackathon looks more like in reality.

2. What is a hackathon for?

Essentially, the goal of a hackathon is to have produced functioning software (or hardware) by the end of the event. The team with the most convincing project is judged to be the winner and takes home the prize.

Hackathon projects aren’t just a weekend fling—sometimes whole apps, features, and even companies have been born from these competitions. Zaarly, GroupMe (bought by Skype within a year of creation), Easy Taxi (now part of Cabify), and Carousell all originated in hackathons, and received funding in the tens of millions.

These days, quite a lot of hackathons are hosted by companies looking not just for new features or to source new talent, but also to improve collaborations within their own tech departments. The range of firms now hosting these events is staggering, with their value spreading from industry to industry. There is even now a Hasbro-a-thon, hosted by the global toy manufacturer!

3. Are hackathons for beginners?

In short: yes, they are. With the competitive aim of these events balanced out by the social and collaborative aspect, most hackathons are open to different skill levels. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a Python pro, nor a Django don—all that matters is that you’re interested in technology.

Think of a hackathon as an intense—but fun!—crash course in development. The amount you will learn in such a short time is surprising, but can be invaluable when you’re getting used to learning the ropes.

Lastly, if you aren’t feeling confident enough about your ability to contribute at a certain point of a hackathon, you’re welcome to merely observe proceedings. It’s a great chance to learn how these events work and ask questions, as well as to work out where you will be able to fit in and help out.

4. Why junior web developers should take part in hackathons

Hackathons provide the perfect opportunity to practice your skills and meet new people. 

We always hear about the importance of meeting like-minded people, but working intensely with others who care about the same thing you care about—whether that’s building APIs or working with a particular framework—can work wonders for your life in web development. 

If the prospect of participating in a hackathon alone isn’t enticing enough for you, maybe one of these adjacent perks will be:

Meeting potential mentors

If that person sitting next to you is a more experienced coder than you, then you can learn from them and perhaps even ask them to be your mentor. We’ve talked before about the importance of having a mentor to your career in tech, and hackathons can be incredibly useful for making these kinds of connections in an informal environment.

Meeting other junior web developers

On the other hand, if that person is a fellow junior developer, that’s great too! Even more than getting to know other classmates in a coding program or bootcamp, it’s always good to meet others at the same point as you in your journey, even if you just want to compare notes on which programming language you found easiest to learn.

Recruitment

Another benefit for joining hackathons as a junior web developer is the prospect of potential recruitment. While having a sharp developer portfolio website is great for showcasing the work you’ve done, these events are perfect for showing how you work with others.

Working collaboratively is essential to being a successful developer. If you prove to be a great teammate over a hackathon you’ll impress not only potential employers, but also your fellow hackers, who may recommend you to their own companies.

A resume boost

What’s more, if you manage to win a hackathon, it’s an impressive achievement to include on your resume! Particularly the experience-light CVs of those who are still only starting out in web development can benefit from listing the events they’ve competed in. You don’t even have to have won it—taking part also sends all the right signals to potential employers.

5. How to find hackathons to join

It should come as no surprise that these days, hackathons are taking place worldwide. They’re being hosted everywhere from university campuses to coworking spaces, with most of them costing nothing to participate.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the offering of in-person hackathons has reduced greatly. If you look at this data from 2015 to October 2021, you’ll see a huge drop in developers searching for the topic from April 2020 onwards.


As vaccination programs are being rolled out, there has been an uptick in interest for them again on the graph.

Luckily—unlike Zoom quizzes—online hackathons have been commonplace long before lockdowns. While they perhaps not as immediately exciting and intense because of the lack of physical proximity, they are still piles of fun, and even easier than before to spectate on.

You can find hackathons to join at these websites. Their offerings are typically split into on- and offline options:

6. Final thoughts

As you’ve seen, hackathons are an excellent way for web developers of all skill levels and walks of life to have a bit of fun and keep their stacks sharp. However, beginners and junior web developers will especially stand to gain a lot from taking part in these events—tech experience, new friends and contacts, as well as job leads.

So if you’re thinking of learning web development, taking part in your first hackathon should be high on your to-do list. We can’t guarantee that your mother will stop worrying that you are now a criminal, but we will guarantee that you will enjoy yourself.

If you’d like to learn more about other aspects of the world of programming, then these articles may interest you:

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