If you have a tough tech problem, try a Hackathon

If you have a tough tech problem, try a Hackathon
As short and intensive mass meetings for designing technical solutions to current issues, Hackathons are in hi-growth mode. Used by professional developers and migrating rapidly in the US into the college community, they serve several functions simultaneously in the fast-moving hi-tech world.

Hackathons are the very latest in speed-innovation. In the UK they are to be found regularly now in specialised ‘innovation labs’ like IdeaLondon in Tech City, Level39 at Canary Wharf and the Digital Catapult. And they have become commonplace among professional developers in the US, especially in booming tech centres like San Francisco and New York, where they have emerged as prime places for networking, job recruiting, entrepreneurial pitching and, in many cases, winning cash/big prizes.

The goal of a ‘hackathon’ (part ‘marathon’, part ‘hack’) is not to obtain confidential data, but for teams to build a new piece of tech, either of their choosing or with code provided by one of the sponsors; and sponsors often encourage students to use their devices – a team of software engineers from Apple was at one hackathon to mentor students at all hours of day and night.

One team spent the week-end programming four of Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinects with an Oculus Rift reality head-set to create an immersive 3-D video conferencing system. Another found sleep-deprived students participating in a 36-hour contest to program mobile apps, websites or hardware, including aerial drones and virtual reality headsets. At the end, the judges walk around as the programmers show off their projects. The winners of one hackathon had developed a robotic arm controlled by a motion sensor; and they won a free trip on a zero-gravity aeroplane as well as travel expenses and admission to hackathons in Taiwan and South Korea.

Week-end hackathons organised by and for students are surging in scale, size and frequency in the US. Only recently a sub-culture, now they are mainstream: last year there were some 40 inter-collegiate hackathons; this year more than 150 are expected. The longest-running was founded at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and has now ballooned to accommodate 1,200 students each semester; and demand is outpacing growth.

In most cases, sponsors underwrite the entire cost – upward of $300,000 – including travel, food and perks; as well as games – frisbee, laser tags, tug-of-war and yoga sessions. “It’s a big party”, commented the Director of one US university hackathon.

Hackathon-goers maintain that it is not the awards that motivate them, but getting off your butt forces you into situations where you learn new tech skills. They encourage students to tinker with new software and hardware and challenge themselves; and students teach one another – there are experts there on nearly everything. They acquire practical skills that college courses fail to teach them, and gain technical proficiency at a much faster pace. And some of them are spinning off their projects into startups and money-making apps.

Identifying coders who can dream big and thrive under pressure is particularly valuable to Silicon Valley. Since hackathons showcase some of the best, brightest and most motivated upstart programmers, the events have become a focal point for recruiting – some say they are essential for pursuing a career in tech. Likewise, students say that hackathons are an ideal way to test-drive the experience of working at a startup. But for venture capitalists, finding talent is only part of the appeal: they provide opportunities to spot emerging tech developments – with virtual reality projects now taking over from social media apps.

In the US, Hackathons, it is claimed, are instilling in young engineers a sense of life after college, and the feeling that they can accomplish anything. In the UK, for the moment, they are essentially intensive sessions for generating technical solutions to topical problems.

From an article in the New York Times, April 8, 2015

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