The Hackathon, All Grown Up


The hackathon used to be about breaking people’s web apps or attacking networks by DDOSing web servers. (We know all about that.)

Today, hackathons are mostly focused on creating something useful. One of our developers, Nicole, recently attended one called HackTheNorth. It’s billed as Canada’s Largest International Hackathon, and she brought back this report on the state of the hackathon today.

It’s a marathon and a sprint

In hackathons, teams collaborate to build a useable piece of technology. It’s hacking in the sense that what you create is hacked together in broad strokes with a lot of urgency involved.

This involves serious donut consumption. Fatigue levels run high. You sometimes have to step over the bodies of developers sleeping in unusual places and positions (known as casualties).

This includes, according to Nicole, someone laid out across a row of folding metal chairs. NOTE: Veteran hackers stuff T shirts into swag bags to make a pillow.

So, hackathons are based on the idea that focused bursts of sustained, creative energy (powered by technical aptitude) can move ideas forward. Hence both marathon and sprint.

Ideas & People

But it’s more than just marathon coding. There are workshops for learning APIs, tech talks, and “fireside chats” with top entrepreneurs. Hackathons are part conference, part competition, and part company showcase.

It’s the kind of environment where people are more excited to see Sam Altman, founder of YCombinator, or Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, than Brad and Angie.

Go big or go home

Hack the North promised to be Canada’s biggest hackathon, and it didn’t disappoint.

There were 1200+ people from universities around the world. There were at least 1000 hackers and about 200 mentors to help with APIs and SDKs. [That’s application programming interface and software development kit.] Sponsors ranged from Apple to Uber. Major League Hacking, sponsored by Dell, provided tons of hardware to code with.

A team’s idea: Create a virtual reality hack using the Oculus Virtual Reality goggles

People can attend hackathons as individuals or as part of a team. Nicole didn’t have a team, so she walked around to see how other people were preparing their battle stations for the next 36 hours.

She connected with 2 other people who didn’t have a team yet. After sharing ideas and skill sets they decided to create a virtual reality hack using the Oculus Virtual Reality goggles. They didn’t win any prizes, but they got to make an idea come true – a product that allows you to go on Google Maps Streetview and roam in any direction you’d like.

Winners included Pebilepsy, a nocturnal epilepsy symptom tracker and prevention software and What the World Wants, which analyzes public data on social media to determine what products people want inventors to work on.

To hack is a beautiful thing

The hacktahon reminds us of a core truth in our business: There are ideas that only happen when people collaborate, share creative energy, and insist on finding solutions.

So if you have a problem that needs hacking, let drinkcaffeine know about it.