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College Hackathons Revisited


(Updated: )

Note: For this revisit, I decided to recount my experiences at hackathons instead of looking at my projects individually.

Among the pieces of CS student advice, one thing that’s mentioned was the importance of hackathons. At hackathons, so it goes, you can meet up with like-minded students and hack up an epic project. Do well enough and you might win a prize or even get noticed by one of the companies sponsoring the event and get a job.

As soon as I got a car, I was excited that I could finally drive wherever on my terms which meant I could go to these amazing events. While there were many Hackathons I could go to, I only managed to attend 3 main ones– HackISU, Minnehacks, and UncommonHacks.

HackISU

The first hackathon I went to was HackISU hosted by the University of Iowa. It also happened to be my first long distance drive taking just over an hour and a half. Keeping with the firsts, this hackathon made me write my first blog post1 ever titled My First Hackathon.

As I got there, I registered and I tried to mingle and find a team. That didn’t go well. Turns out that most people had a team already. Defeated, I decided to work on a project on my own. I was a loner in my sophomore year and I spent hours playing video games with my headphones on to block out all the noise. This meant that I missed a lot of people who knocked on my door. To fix this, I wanted to make something that would pick up a door knock and notify me through a voice interface where I could see who was there. A mobile phone in other words.

As I went to get hardware, I met someone who also worked on a hardware project. Soon enough we met two other people and we brainstormed a project. We decided to make a mini-turret that would shoot black beans at the flick of a wrist. We soon got to work. As the other members worked on designing the turret, I decided to see how to program a Pebble Watch to detect a wrist flick.

We started off with a lot of zeal, but that died off the next morning as a team member bailed and I struggled to grasp C. From there, I gave up leaving one guy to do all the work. His efforts paid off and he actually finished my door notification idea which worked… two five seconds before blowing up. Oh well, no prizes for us.

The great thing about this hackathon is that it inspired me to develop personal projects. This came from all the finished projects which competitors put a whole lot of effort into. My hope was to build something as cool as them one day. Haven’t yet, but I will. Mark my words.

The subsequent HackISUs weren’t as interesting. I left early at the other 4 HackISUs since I had no good project and a fractured team. The coolest thing from HackISU was the one employer I constantly met with who eventually offered me an internship, which was revoked because we couldn’t find accommodation.

MinneHacks

Hosted by the University of Minnesota, this hackathon gave me a reason to visit Minneapolis. Honestly, the trip to Minneapolis was more interesting than the Hackathons itself.

I have no idea what I worked on the first time and the second time around, I decided to call it quits and work on a project in my own time. The project in question was an implementation of Dungeons and Dragons on Amazon Alexa. I dropped that once I realized that Amazon already has a demo similar to what I was trying to make.

The best thing about the hackathon was Einstein’s Bagels. I wish I could say more about this hackathon, but that’s all I have to say about it.

UncommonHacks

A picture of me with four other people

Me with the winning team Uncommon Hacks Facebook Page

Hosted by The University of Chicago, this was the furthest hackathon from me, a five-hour drive away from me. UncommonHacks is my favorite Hackathons because of how random it was, which given the premise of my blog, is my thing.

The first time I went, they had a pancake guy who could paint stuff on pancakes. The second time, they brought a psychic on top of sĂ©ancing a Galaxy Note 7 which was a victim of Samsung’s battery fiasco.

They also had the best food out of all the Hackathons I’ve been to. As great as pizza and bagels are, UncommonHacks had proper catered food covering many cuisines, like Filipino, Chinese and Japanese.

In regards to hacking, I had both a good and bad experience. The first time around didn’t go so well since I contributed jack shit to my team who was working on a Rock, Paper, Scissors game made using the Leap Motion. I guess that’s why they won a prize at that time.

A picture of the Math.floor(it) interface

Our winning project.

The second time around, things went a lot better. I got myself into a diverse team and it was the most productive I’ve ever been at a hackathon. We decided to work on Math.floor(it), a web app designed to calculate the cost of speeding.

Between the four of us, we evenly split ourselves between front and back end. I went on the back end where I got to wrangle with the Google Maps API. As I said, we were an incredibly productive team and this is the only time I could say that I got my time’s worth at a hackathon. In the end, we won a prize for the Most Uncommon project as we encompassed the spirit of the hackathon.

Reflection

Besides that one award at UncommonHacks, I was terrible at hackathons. Besides giving up early, I had poor social skills, even for a building full of CS students. Maybe everyone else was awkward too?

I also expected these to be valuable for getting an internship, which they were. From these events, I got noticed by one sponsor who gave me my first ever tech interview and it probably got me noticed by Goldman Sachs. I wanted to say hackathons don’t help with getting an internship, but they do. You just need to do more than just attend hackathons. While attending these will get you the interview, they won’t get you the job.

If you’re planning on going to a hackathon, I’m the worst person to ask for advice, but I’ll give you some anyway.

  • You don’t have to stay for the whole event. If things aren’t going anywhere, don’t be afraid to bail.
  • At the same time, try not to say away from difficult problems. As difficult as they are, being able to solve hard problems is a crucial skill in programming. At the same time, you get a dopamine wish when you side problems along with a great story to tell employers.
  • Try to find other CS students to go with. They could be your teammates and it makes transportation easier as you can split gas and driving.
  • Apply as early as you can. That Way you get a better shot at getting reimbursement if you need to travel.
  • Take some homework. You’re in a building full of CS majors, you’re bound to get help.
  • As extra as Code of Conducts can be at times, they all boil down to not being an asshole. So don’t be one.

Again, my hackathons weren’t very productive, but these projects are the highlight of my hacking.


  1. Not exactly. I made a short “Hello World” post before then explaining what my first blog would be about.