Hackathons: Building Apps & Building Skill

by Pulak Mittal on May 7, 2013

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So, hackathons…

I’ve been looking forward to this post, as hackathons are near and dear to me. Over the last couple years, I led the organizational efforts for PennApps, the student-run hackathon hosted at University of Pennsylvania (Penn) every semester. In that time, PennApps has grown significantly to become one of the biggest student-run college hackathons in the country, and it has also influenced many other schools to start their own. MHacks at University of Michigan, TartanHacks at Carnegie Melon University, HackRU at Rutgers University, and HackMIT at Massachusetts Institute of Technology – all of these events started in the past two years and have, in some form or another, been modeled after PennApps. That’s pretty cool.

Now that you can see how they have taken off recently, I should probably explain what a hackathon is. Some of the details can vary, but basically a hackathon is an app development competition over the course of a weekend, where students (“hackers”) work together in teams to create web or mobile apps (or sometimes hardware hacks). You start from scratch, and by the end of the weekend, the goal is to have a functional product you can demo to a panel of judges.

The types of apps built at hackathons span a pretty wide range. For instance, the winning team from this spring’s PennApps put an RFID scanner in a backpack to scan items as they were put into or removed from a backpack.  This was paired with an Android app to track the items and notify the user when he forgets something. Another team built a web app for learning Sign Language. One team built an app that allows you to find other travelers heading to the same airport to save on taxi costs, and another built an application that automatically ports iOS apps to Android. What’s cool is that a number of teams have continued working on their PennApps projects past the hackathon. PayTango went through the YCombinator startup accelerator, Firefly got investment from the Dorm Room Fund, and others are on their way to similar levels of success.

Hackathons are a fairly new trend – only with the advent of comprehensive web and mobile platforms is it really possible to build a product that works (reasonably) over the course of a single weekend. But the trend has taken off. When PennApps started, it was one of the only college hackathons around, yet now I could probably go to a hackathon within bussing distance of Penn every weekend during the school year. This past weekend, students at Thomas Jefferson High School put on HackTJ, the largest high school hackathon, with over 100 students in attendance.

Unsurprisingly, I am a proponent of this trend. I love seeing so many schools throw hackathons, and companies (like Modis!) supporting the events and, transitively, supporting student hackers. In my view, hackathons have massive potential to disrupt current models of entrepreneurship. A team of college students could easily go to 2 hackathons every month. By the end of a single semester, they will have created 8 new projects, and anecdotally we know that the chances that one of them could become a viable business are actually pretty high. Regardless, this team is getting experience working together and is consistently setting aside time to hack. By the end of the semester, they will also probably have a good sense of what types of projects do well at a hackathon and impress the judges – a useful heuristic for what type of startup will impress investors. Who knows? Perhaps they will have racked up some prize money as well.

In that way, hackathons are a good starting point for college entrepreneurs, so I think this is a model that we’ll see becoming more and more common. In the midst of writing this post, I found out that two of my friends, who employ this precise strategy, were accepted into YCombinator with a hack that began at PennApps. Talk about theory validation!

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