What is a hackathon?

I’ve been going to HackRU, the semesterly hackathon held at Rutgers, for a few semesters now.[1]

I noticed I kept getting the same response when I told my non-nerdy Rutgers friends what I’d be doing on the nicest weekend of the year so far, April 18 and 19. “What’s a hackathon?” they’d ask. “Is that like, hacking into something?”

The conversation would then inevitably turn to the DDoS attack that took the Rutgers network down a few weeks ago. You can read my thoughts about that here, but to be completely clear: I would not call that a hack.

Here’s how I usually explain a “hack” in the context of a hackathon:

Did you ever play with Legos as a kid?[2] Remember the all-important instructions? They told you, step-by-step, how to build what was pictured on the box. This is almost like learning to code for the first time — you follow instructions, learn how each part works, and eventually get something to work.

But sometimes, once you finished building that cool spaceship or car or whatever, you got bored. So you broke everything down back to the original parts and started to build something new. For me, this was when Legos really got fun. I’d go full-on Dr. Frankenstein, taking airplane wings and lightsabers from a Star Wars kit, parts from a pirate set, maybe even a character or two from Harry Potter.

I made all kinds of crazy things. At one point I built my own universe of space-pirates, complete with a moon-base type thing, a fleet of space-fighters, and even a giant battleship.

To me, that’s what a “hackathon hack” is — an amalgamation of parts, borrowing a little from here, a bit from there, and combining it all into some weird new package. Faiq and Sam’s 2048 Against Cancer is an easy-to-understand example of a “hack” — they took a popular game (2048) and a popular payment system (Venmo) and created a game that donates a penny to a charity every time you make a move. They “hacked” those two things together into a cool and unique package.

After being asked this question so many times, I thought it’d be interesting if I asked my friends at HackRU how they’d explain what a hackathon is to someone who’s never been to one.

Here’s what they told me. (emphasis mine)

A hackathon is a real time invention competition.” - Mike Swift

“Code or make something in 24 hours. If you like it after 24 hours, then stick with it. If not then move on to something else.” - Rick, director of RU MakerSpace

“Without sounding pretentious, people come here to build the future. Through a hack, app, program, connection, etc. — even if you don’t create something, you’ll make incredible connections here.” - Sam Goldfield

A hackathon feels like suspended reality. Have you ever had a dream at 8am, experienced a whole thing, and woken up just 5 minutes later even though that dream felt like hours?” - Michelle Chen

“24 hours, build cool shit” - Aedan Dispenza

24-passion filled hours of ‘fuck it, why not?’” - Michelle Chen at 4:13am

“It’s a bunch of people in a room on computers hacking things” - Chris Gavin

“A bunch of people with computers and water bottles trying to sleep, but not sleeping.” “And like, trying to program ideas, then spending hours trying to find that bug, or just hallucinating about one.” “But also going to a place and just making something awesome.” - 3 high school sophomore hackers from Freehold Boro

I’m not happy right now. It’s depressing. I’ve lost all hope in trying to make a thing work and I’m going to sleep. But I’m still coming back tomorrow morning.” - Faiq Raza at 4:33am

“It’s a place where I meet some of my best friends over and over again week after week. We build cool shit together.” - Kaushal Parikh

“24–36 hour programming event where you make something start to finish. The goal is to learn something you want to learn, meet some cool people, and make some new friends.” - Jade Yee

“It’s a place where you can connect with a community for encouragement, where you can bring ideas and, in 24 hours, test them out and see if they should live or die. You figure out if this thing is worth caring about.” - Rick, director of RU MakerSpace

“A gathering where you can come to talk with likeminded people about what’s good.” - random guy waiting on line for coffee at 10:45 pm

“The most exciting collaborative space to create ideas. Impossible ideas materialize. It opens your mind to a lot of new ideas you’d never venture into otherwise.” - KPCB winners of $1000

“Overnight event where people come together to learn and make something they’re interested in. It’s an environment where you can branch out and learn. The prizes are nice, but it’s all about the learning.” - Billy Lynch

  1. Usually, I go to cover the event for The Daily Targum, the Rutgers student newspaper. But this semester — which also happens to be my last semester at Rutgers — was my first time actually hacking on a project at a hackathon.  ↩

  2. Or as an adult? Nothing wrong with that.  ↩