What is a Hackathon? This was a question that was posed to me on my way back from winning an award at a 2 day hackathon in Birmingham. Funnily enough I was lost for words as to how to explain what I thought was a very simple concept. When I had initially told my parents that I was attending a hackathon their minds went straight to the stereotypical image of a room full of nerds on laptops trying to figure out how crack different implementations of cybersecurity. A friend told me, “A Hackathon is an invention marathon - it is an event in which a group of people from different backgrounds and skills come together and work to bring an idea to life.”
The word ‘hack’ in modern society has commonly been linked to many controversial stories in the news. From Russian hackers allegedly affecting the recent American election to celebrity nudes being leaked, hacking has been associated with a very small criminal contingent. For the majority of us, the computing enthusiasts, hacking is the act of putting together a solution in the quickest and often crudest way. A challenge is set at a hackathon, attendees work as individuals or in teams, against the clock to try and solve these challenges, and when the time runs out all the attendees present their creations to their peers and winners are chosen.
This particular hackathon, Bullhacks, was hosted by Birmingham City University. The event had a very diverse mix of people of different skill levels - from absolute beginners who had barely written any code to professionals. The Hacksmiths contingent was equally diverse, ranging from first years to third years ready to go into graduate schemes. After a warm welcome and interesting speeches from different sponsors, a variety of open-ended challenges were set and the clock was started.
One thing I noticed quite quickly was the different approach our group seemed to take. As Goldsmiths students we often talk about the fact that we are incredibly creative when compared to most. While I can feel the positive and creative vibe on campus, I didn’t realise until being at an event with similar people from different unis quite how true this was.
I formed a team with 2 friends from Hacksmiths. After about an hour of brainstorming and throwing ideas around we settled on an Idea. We wanted to create an app for small local business that provided a platform for craftsmen and craftswomen to advertise their skills and take orders for products. We called it Made2Order and pitched it as the ‘Just-Eat for florists and bakers’. It would allow users to order crafted items and pick them up in store. The unique selling point was that this was specifically for products that would have to be made on order rather than sitting in a warehouse like on amazon. Good Idea? As I would realise at 4a.m. the next morning crouched over my laptop on my second Red Bull, with bags under my eyes, this was much more easily said than done.
Hackathons are marathons as I stated earlier. However, a hackathon is not just about the task - there were multiple workshops (some technical, and others focused on soft skills such as how to apply for jobs after university). There were also multiple games competitions, good food, great pizza and an a shit tonne of snacks. Many attendees did not even create something to present, some using the expertise of the volunteers to help them with coursework.
In the very task of bringing a project from the ideation phase to something tangible that one can showcase means there is no such thing as an easy hackathon. As hackers, our instincts are to always try to bite off just a little more than we can chew. However, this adversity places us in that elusive state of necessity where our learning potential is maximised and amazing innovations are spawned.
After almost 24 hours, with barely enough time to fully test the project, we submitted our work and began to gather for the presentations. As the countdown towards our presentation grew smaller, time seemed to speed up as my mind began to fill with nervous excitement. The presentation was a blur, and as I walked back to my seat, my mind wondered whether our presentation encapsulated the 24 hours of blood, sweat and tears.
While winning the award was great, the best thing that I took from the hackathon were new friends and connections. A hackathon is not a race and it is not a competition - it is a marathon where the race itself offers greater rewards than the finish line itself.
I cannot wait to be part of the team running our very own hackathon for the third year Anvil Hack III.