Grace Hopper Celebration (#GHC17) Why and How to Prepare for Hackathons


Thursday morning after a fantastic first day at the Grace Hopper Celebration 2017, I was elated to begin my day with “Why and How to Prepare for Hackathons” The panel of experts included:

Unlike most of the panels I have been attending this conference, the session started off asking the audience who they were, where they were from, and why they were here. As the microphone was passed around the room, there was a common theme beginning to form. Most of the audience was at varying levels of experience: never competed, but wanted to; had their first competition coming up very soon; or had unsuccessfully competed once or twice. The one thing that each of those categories had in common was that the audience member expressed hesitancy, a lack of confidence, and sometimes downright fearfulness of the concept of hackathons.

When defining what a hackathon was, Professor Odeh of NYU, who started HackNY, says that the core of computer science and all innovations is the skill of problem-solving. Hackathons allow the ability to innovate and learn from each other at the same time. “You all have a part to play, even if you don’t have all the skills yet!” she said. “Whatever skills you come in with, you will walk away with more.”

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“Everyone brings so much to the table and everyone learns so much from each other.”

Sally Zhang said, “Everyone should attend a hackathon!” And that was one of the most important messages of the whole talk. A few more key points are listed below.

  • What you bring depends on the length of the competition.
    • Your laptops already set up and ready to go.
    • Power adaptors
    • If the competition lasts several days, bring your bag and personal care items.
    • Drinking water and snacks are usually provided, but make sure you remember to take care of yourself!
  • Find a Mentor to guide you and your team!
    “In the beginning, students want to build something so big and so huge, but the mentor can come in and say you only have 24 hours or 3 days, you need to calm down and focus on the issue.” – Odeh
  • “Do not feel stressed out or worried. These are real mind blockers that will hurt your productivity. Relax and have fun!” – Zhang
  • Relax and have fun! (I realize I put this twice. It’s that important!)
  • Break problems or challenges down into small parts.
  • Just go for it!

Hackathons need to change their culture to promote equality. Focus on problem solving and collaboration.

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Why should I do a hackathon? “When you see someone afterward, you see how much they have learned and transformed,” said Odeh. I tell my students all the time. I can’t promise it will be easy, but I do promise it will be worth it.

Personally, I can say that through participating in the National Cyber League (NCL) competition, which you can read more about here, I gained confidence in my content knowledge. I have also slowly grown my skills throughout the many NCL competitions I have participated in. The team competition is my favorite part because I get to work with others to share our knowledge and expertise in different areas of the competition. Peer to peer teaching is on the best and most effective ways to learn and you might even surprise yourself with what you didn’t know you knew!

If you want to find out more about NCL or any other hackathons, feel free to shoot me a message. I’ll do my best to get you some answers. Anyway, happy hacking!

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