The Joy of Hackathons
Last term, I went to 3 full-fledged Major League Hacking Hackathons. These aren't your typical Hackathons. In all of the Hackathons I've been to, I have thoroughly enjoyed the MLH ones the most. Perhaps it's because they tend to be the most competitive to get into. Or maybe it's due to the fact that they're hosted at universities and only university students can attend. In fact, there's a ton to boast about these types of Hackathons! I'll get into that shortly.
A Brief History
Firstly, what caused me to want to go to more MLH Hackathons? Well, back in my 2A term, the beginning of sophomore year, I participated in Hack The North and had the best time. However, with the heavy school term, I was unable to go to any more during that time. After all, with 40+ hours of class a week and taking into account time for homework and interviewing, there's not much time left after that. Also, back then I would get pretty drained after a Hackathon and would need a day or so to get back to my regular self. These days all I need is a good night's sleep and I'm all better. Anyways, I decided to experiment with going to several Hackathons this past co-op term. Previously, I had a limit of one per term. Due to the lack of homework and interviewing, I found that even with the 40 hour work weeks, I had enough time and energy to go to 3 Hackathons: McHacks, HackWestern, and HackPrinceton. These were all unlike ones I had been to in the past. The main reason being because they were held in places that I had never been to.
I had forgotten how much I loved to travel. This love wasn't truly reignited until I travelled to Princeton University. The last time I did a road trip to the New York area was probably many years ago and that was for a family vacation. Little things really seemed to stand out. One thing that I found intriguing was seeing fast food places looking totally rebranded in certain areas. It's strange how US McDonald's don't have Jr. Chickens. I think they just call all chicken sandwiches McChickens. There's a clear distinction in Canada anyways. As well, I saw many highways and other areas that looked very familiar. Crossing the border brought back tons of memories too.
So yes, it was a ~12 hour trip there including crossing the border and about 15 hours back but it was so worth it. Being on a bus with about 50 other like-minded individuals and travelling to the US was one of if not the biggest set of highlights in my university experience so far. Did I mention that the bus was paid for entirely by sponsors? The awesomeness goes on and on.
It's not all fun and games. Though, it mostly is. Getting into these Hackathons wasn't an easy feat. They had detailed application processes and then the actual selection of hackers may or may not have operated on a lottery basis. In total, there were thousands of applicants for each Hackathon and only several hundred made it to each. I was very lucky to be selected for 3 of the big ones that happened during that Hackathon season.
So many interesting people were involved in these Hackathons. From other hackers, to employers, and friends, it was quite a blast! Usually before the opening ceremonies, hackers were given the opportunity to speak with some of the employers of sponsor companies that attended the event. These guys were really fun to talk to as they would share wisdom about their experiences in the industry, and talk about their places of work. As well, they usually spoke about APIs that they had created and how we could best use them. Sometimes, the best user of a company's API would win a prize.
Other hackers were great to meet as well. After all, when you're up for 24 or 36 hours straight working away on code in a room filled with many people, it's no longer an anti-social experience. It's such a great feeling to finish a particular module of an application and then take a break by going and seeing what other people are working on and chatting with them about it and other things. So many hacks amaze me and give me inspiration for future projects.
There are always tons of things to be learned in the software industry. At these events there are usually tech talks and workshops where you can learn more about different technologies and how to use them for particular applications. At these three Hackathons that I went to, the following skills were vastly improved and some of them I even learned at the event: REST API, Node.js, Java servers, Firebase, and Android. These days, it's getting easier and easier to find what technologies you need to solve a particular problem with software and the more you know, the more solutions you can potentially think up.
I am very happy with the hacks that were created. All of which can be checked out on GitHub if you're interested. There is one hack that stands out from the others. It's called babysteps. The goal of this one was to broaden user's comfort zones by giving them suggestions for outgoing things they could do. It does get more complicated though. Our app needed to identify the user's comfort zone and then propose activities within a certain threshold. Then as activities are completed, the comfort zone has to be modified for other activities to be added. What happens when a user with a low comfort zone goes skydiving? Does the "scariness" of skydiving go up or down or even stay the same? Lots of thought was put into the actual implementation of our algorithm, and all in 24 hours! Other than the actual development its self being fun, this app really speaks to me. Often people will say they want to do something like travelling or going to their first Hackathon. These things seem scary and that's because they are if you're not experienced in them. But you don't need to be experienced in those activities particularly to reduce the scariness of them. There are other avenues you can take in order to be less afraid and more willing. I was lucky enough to have the courage to go to my first few Hackathons that required lots of travel. It's very different than going somewhere that's local for me such as Toronto or Waterloo. It is hacks like these that I envision will make an impact on people's lives. One step at a time, I encourage you to expand your comfort zone so that you too can reach your dreams and do the things you love.
Shout out to Major League Hacking at mlh.io!