How to Pick a Hackathon

By Jennifer Goforth Gregory

Hackathons are definitely not one size fits all. One developer may learn new skills and even get a job lead, while another may find the exact same event was a waste of time. Before deciding which hackathons to attend, think about what your purpose is in going. Are you looking to learn a new API? Do you have your eye on applying for a job with a specific company? Is your goal to win prizes? Or perhaps you want to create an app to sell. If you know why you’re attending, you can select the event that will help you meet your goals.

hackathonHere are five questions to ask when choosing a hackathon:

What type of event is it?

One of the first things to determine is what type of hackathon it is. Mike Swift, Developer Evangelist for SendGrid and co-founder of HackerLeague, says that hackathons fall into three categories:

  • Micro-accelerator or startup weekends where you can learn the skills needed to run a business in a short period of time. These usually aren’t right for developers who only want to build something for fun.
  • Vertical hackathons that are very specific, such as on a certain technology or industry. For example, a music or health hackathon.
  • Generic hackathons where participants build things for the sake of building things. At these, attendees are typically there to meet other developers, refine their skills and have some fun.

Will speakers or experts attend?

When researching hackathons, find out what speakers, sponsor representatives, mentors and experts will be on hand. “Especially if you’re choosing to jump into a hackathon where you’re learning something new, you should find out what support systems will be available,” advises Matt Paddock, Director at the digital agency Grow, who has organized hackathons. “If organizers don’t have people available to help fill in your skill set, then the experience might end up being an exercise in frustration.”

Are you interested in networking?

People often attend hackathons because they want to meet recruiters at top companies. However, the other developers there can often offer even better networking opportunities. Even when he was a student at Rutgers, Smith says, he often attended hackathons to meet other developers and has made several lasting friendships after spending the weekend bonding over code. “Try to attend events that will attract people who have common interests and that you would be interested in networking with,” he says.

How are teams formed?

Paddock says team formation has a big impact on attendees’ overall experiences at a hackathon. “If it’s a competitive hackathon, your team will only be as good as the weakest team member,” he observes. “If your main goal is networking, then team formation is not as big of a concern.” Teams are typically assigned by the organizers, formed by the participants ahead of time or organized at the event. At the hackathons he’s organized, he found the best results came when participants either registered as a team or formed their own group at the event based on skills and ability.

Are you interested in the prizes?

For some people, prizes are the main reason that they spend the weekend creating a project. For others, prizes are an afterthought. While some hackathons offer technology or cash prizes, others reward the winners with an experience that they would otherwise not have — such as being invited to demo their project at the NY Tech Meetup. Swift recommends seeking out hackathons that offer experiences that can be worthwhile to your career in the long run.

Not every hackathon is going to be for you, but by taking a few minutes to understand both what the event offers and what you want to get out of it, you can make sure your coding weekend is well-spent.

Jennifer Gregory specializes in writing about technology and small business. In addition to having a Masters degree in technical writing, she’s worked as a technical writer for both small and large software companies, including IBM. She also served as a project manager and user-interface designer for both IT systems and software projects.

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