5 Reasons Participating in a Hackathon Should Be On Your Bucket List

A friend in New York was a self-described ‘hackathon addict’ – I still recall how silly that sounded. She compared hackathons to speed dating – a brief thrill before moving on. And while I nodded politely as I heard her stories, I assumed hackathons were a fringe activity that never amounted to anything worthwhile.

Wow was I wrong.

I do not write code. I wrote some BASIC code on an Apple II in elementary school, plotting graphics and bringing home print outs of my work that my parents stared at blankly. But I have worked alongside those who write code for 20 years, starting with the first SDK I sold for the Mosaic Browser at Spyglass.

I recently formed a team that competed in the largest hackathon in history, and — we won second place and $30,000. This post explains what I got out of that experience and why ‘Hackathon Work’ offers waaay more than sleepless nights, rapid-fire decisions and on-the-fly collaboration that showcases ‘the possible.’

hack.summit is sponsored by IBM and saw more than 50,000+ participants. I represented Gimbal and worked with The National Association of Realtors Center for Realtor Technology and DoStuff Media. We rolled up our sleeves and said from the outset (to ourselves), ‘We can win this.’

Our team won second place using Gimbal geofences Geo Data Visualizations, beating 1,260 teams and winning capturing $30,000. And we decided early on to donate our prize money 100% of any winnings to an organization that teaches Chicago youth how to build WordPress sites – Chicago Smart Collaborative.code.

Top 5 Reasons Participating in a Hackathon Should Be On Your Bucket List

1. The Thrill. Some will tell you that the ultimate thrill is in jumping from an airplane. I’ve jumped out of two perfectly good airplanes, and I would say to them, “you haven’t hacked for a cause!” I’d argue that nothing is more thrilling than when you have 48-hours to build something out of nothing – fast.

2. The Team. Nobody is paid to hack. Nobody has ‘power’ or ‘leverage’ in decision-making. Ideas can come – without fear of consequences – from any team member. Like any team, some are about problem-solving, while some are about asking hard questions – and others still are hanging back until they believe that something meaningful will happen – and only then do they amaze you.

3. The Lessons. The biggest discoveries often have nothing to do with what we built, but what we learned along the way. Our mistakes – which never made it into the Final Submission – are the learnings I most want to go back and learn more about, and they help my ‘day job’ hugely.

4. The Unexpected. Startup CEOs sometimes call themselves ‘Chief Bottle Washers,’ which means they see themselves as being at the service of their employees, removing barriers. Hackathon Teams take this concept to the next level, asking for all kinds of unexpected contributions that have nothing to do with ‘what you’re good at’ or ‘what you’re supposed to do’ – to hell with your Comfort Zone.

5. The Optimism. The winner isn’t the best coder; it is the best creation. I love people that can build something from scratch, relying mostly on imagination and optimism. As Marc Andreessen says, ‘What if it does work?’ –that should be the lens via which you think about every idea, and hackathon teams need high doses of denial and optimism to believe that what they suspect is good, can be built.

Upcoming Hackathons to Checkout

Coca-Cola’s ‘CoolerHack’: April 15 – 17, 2016

Coca-Cola is looking to find the best hardware hackers to solve for the pain-point of not knowing what is in-stock within their consumer coolers. Participation is free, participants retain all of their IP and teams could win a contract from Coke to continue to build their solution and run a pilot, in addition to cool prizes (like a 3D printer).

Click Here to Learn More About the ‘CoolerHack’

IBM Watson’s ‘Conversational Apps’ – Submit by April 15, 2016

IBM wants you to shape the future of UE. Pages of forms and static information are a thing of the past — why not let your applications actually talk to your users? We want to see you use this technology to build a conversational app. It could be a chat bot, it could be an automated phone system, it could be something no one has ever seen! Take an existing process and make it more human (but without the human).

Click Here to Learn More About the ‘Conversational Apps’ Hack

MTC’s Connected Car Hackathon – Submit by April 10, 2016

Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), in close collaboration with Automatic Labs, Inc. (Automatic), is pleased to present this Connected Car Hackathon (note: space is limited to 50 teams). This hackathon seeks to bring together programmers, developers, artists, technologists, data analysts, environmental stewards, travel behavior experts, commuters, and others who are interested in using technology to address our region’s transportation challenges in order to transform how we get around the Bay Area.

Click Here to Learn More About the ‘Connected Car’ Hackathon