by Chelsea Kowalski
Technology inspires innovation, and in recent years, hackathons have become increasingly popular as a way to explore innovative solutions to complex challenges. In just a matter of hours, teams of students can consider creative solutions that otherwise may have seemed overwhelming. Hackathons are a great way to test knowledge and build communication skills in a short time.
A hackathon is a competition that involves collaboration and requires both technical and non-technical skills to apply creative problem-solving to a challenge. Typically over two or three days, participants team up and work quickly to create a product/solution and present it to the other participants and representatives from technology companies.
In October 2021, Pinnguaq co-sponsored a University of Toronto hackathon called Hack the Valley IV: Battle of the Coding Clashers, which challenged students to come up with original and educational games, either in concept or design. Glenn Ye and Leo Wang, both in the third year of a computer science program, won the Best Game award. Both students had little to no experience with hackathons but a vested interest in gameplay and found the hackathon to be good motivation to try something new.
Ye and Wang created an educational, quiz-style battle game that covered a variety of STEM topics and concepts. However, the pathway to success was not easy. The first hurdle came before the hackathon even started. Originally, they were part of a team of four, but their colleagues had to drop out due to school demands. Ye and Wang persisted despite the disadvantage, relying on each other and their limited background in coding. Wang says he was glad the hackathon encouraged him to work collaboratively. “As a computer science student, I’m used to working on my own. But sometimes a project as big as the one we tried to take on, like most projects in the world, requires split[ting] up the effort.”
According to Ye and Wang, hackathons breed innovation and creativity. They found the experience forced ideas by making them bypass the planning phase. Wang thought he wouldn’t enjoy rushing through his work but now he sees the value in a forced creative bubble. “It will really help if you’re struggling to find some ideas.”
Part of the allure of a hackathon is the lack of industry standards, which allows creativity to flow. According to Wang, “a lot of [computer science students] have ideas, but no one really wants to start on an idea because that’s the hard part. I think hackathons put you under pressure and force you to just roll with an idea. And sometimes it works out.”
When it comes to advice for future hackathoners, Ye and Wang agree on one thing: go for it—with friends. Ye says a team of friends is key to success. “I think working with a team of people you already know is much easier and smoother, and you’re more likely to succeed because you can trust your friends to participate and help you out.” Wang also points out that hackathons are open to everyone. “There are plenty of people that spend almost the whole hackathon [on] a design of a product. It’s not always about creating the product. Sometimes a really good proposal of a product can also win prizes.”
The non-coding parts of a hackathon aren’t highlighted very often but they are just as important. The companies that sponsor hackathons host workshops on software and digital tools that are open to all participants and are a great way to learn about potential new skills. And if you want to code but have no experience, Wang says there’s no reason to worry. “I think in general, you’ll always find people that can explain stuff to you and teach you quickly because that’s what the environment of a hackathon really promotes.”
And for students with an interest in coding and computer science, hackathons can be a great way to network with other students, educators, and companies offering mentorships and programming training.
Ye suggests that because hackathon event organizers are usually looking for participants to produce creativity and functionality, hackathons could be a part of innovative changes that fill needs identified by a community. “They want to encourage original ideas. So, if there was a hackathon that was focused on creating technology that would help remote communities, I think that would spark a lot of original concepts and projects that would grow and help transform these communities.”