Hackathons:  A Two Year Retrospective

To say that it’s been a wild ride would be a massive understatement. Hackathons have certainly changed my life in ways I could never have predicted, but recently I’ve grown a bit weary of them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still in love with the idea of hackathons, but recently I’ve started to feel my passion for them cool off. As I drove back home yesterday morning, exhausted and tired after an all-night coding session, I began to wonder what might’ve led to my feelings of burn-out. That’s when I realized that last week marked my 2-year hackathon anniversary, and that’s also when I knew it was finally time to reflect on those long 2 years.

HackDFW 2021 Devpost Page

My First Hackathon

October 2021, in a lot of ways it feels like just yesterday when I went to my first hackathon. At the time I had been out of school for around 2 years. And it was also around then that I started doing some private tutoring sessions for some students from a local university. I was mainly focused on math tutoring but one of my students had asked me if I also did programming as well, since they had some intro CS classes next semester and weren’t too confident. It had been quite a while since I did some programming, but I felt confident that I could pick up the material I needed in no time. So, I spent the next few months learning all I could about Java and Web-Development. I only had enough time to cover the basics of Java, HTML & CSS, since I was busy with a full-time job, but that was enough to get me interested in computer programming again

As I became more and more engrossed with the field again, I started to search for events or groups that could get me connected to other like-minded people. That was when I re-connected with an old friend from university. I told him what I had been up to, and he recommended that I go to HackDFW. He wanted to join me, but due to some commitments he could not. So, I decided to go on ahead.

When the event day finally came, I won’t lie, it absolutely blew me away. I was awestruck by just how many people there were, and not to mention all the cool things that the companies were offering as prizes and free merchandise. Not to mention the free food, drinks and just the overall atmosphere was something different. Getting to talk to recruiters and engineers about their work and their day-to-day, chatting with other students and professionals about the sorts of things they love, things they want to learn, things they wanted to build that day. It was something I will never forget. My project at the time wasn’t anything too crazy, just a simple static website hosted on AWS S3, but it was the start of everything.

Since then, I’ve now been to over 15 hackathons. I’ve seen all kinds, both big and small, I’ve traveled to both the East and West Coast to compete at some of the craziest events you can think of. Just thinking back on everything I’ve done since really inspires me. So why have I grown tired?

HackDFW 2022 Floor 1 & 2

Why I started doing hackathons

I started doing hackathons because I knew that I didn’t really know a thing about programming and technology. I could use a computer pretty well; tell me you needed some finicky program installed and I could do it. But I couldn’t tell you a single thing about how computers worked, what Linux was, what sorts of programming languages were out there and what you could do with them. I was tech-savvy but I was far from a developer or engineer. I didn’t know a single thing and it deeply bothered me, truth be told I didn’t even know where to start or where I wanted to go, not that I would have known how to get there.

That’s why I became obsessed with hackathons, after HackDFW I realized just how many things were out there, and just how much there was to learn. Things started slowly at first, at the next few events I started talking more and more to fellow hackers. I’d ask them all questions about what they were studying, what projects they were doing, and so much more. I of course reached out to the mentors as well, many of them had done internships or were even full-time software engineers that were more than happy to give advice. I’d ask about things that I should learn as someone who was interested in going the self-taught route. Time and time again, I heard the same 2 things: “Master the basics and focus on what you want to do.”

Advice in mind, I went to Hackathon after hackathon, I kept learning more and more, and I went from knowing nothing about the software space to developing a basic understanding of all the different fields and roles that were available. I also started to win some hackathons which only motivated me to keep going further. It was around June of 2022; this was when I started to go down a pitfall of sorts. Even after everything I had done it felt like I hadn’t learned enough yet, I wasn’t ready to continue down a path, because there was still much more left to do. In some ways you could say I was stuck in tutorial-hell.

That was when I thought about MIT. I thought to myself, “Surely MIT would have a hackathon, right? It’d almost be crazier to believe that they wouldn’t.” So, I went online and typed “MIT Hackathon” and that was when I found out about HackMIT. Funnily enough, I’ve seen a lot of people find out about HackMIT through word of mouth, but I found it purely by accident. That was also when I started to find about a whole new tier of hackathons. I started to become obsessed with them partly because of this self-imposed tutorial hell I was in. I was looking for something, and I felt that if I went to HackMIT or someplace similar I might find it. In some ways, this line of thinking didn’t turn out to be wrong but not quite in the way I was expecting.

HackMIT, Harvard and TreeHacks

On the 1-year anniversary of my hackathon journey I was at HackMIT. This was an important turning point both for myself and for me as a hacker. I had been to quite a few hackathons by then, maybe about 5 or 6. I had thought that HackDFW was big, but that was when I learned what a BIG Hackathon really looked like. For the 2022 year, there were over 1000 hackers at the university. I was truly blown away by all the incredible people I met Hackers, Mentors, Sponsors, Organizers, everyone involved.

I met hardware engineers that were working on creating bleeding edge ASICs, Self-Driving cars, Ex-Nasa engineers, Crypto Devs, Robotics experts, and I had an incredibly pleasant chat with a Physics Professor over some interesting quirks of quantum information science. I spoke to an MIT graduate, who was working on a Start-up with his brother from Harvard, I spoke with two guys who were good friends in college who now worked as quant developers at a trading firm. I also heard about IBMs future for their quantum computing division.

That’s not to exclude the hackers themselves, the mentors and sponsors were great but the hackers themselves were incredible as well. I got to meet all the HackTX organizers for the 2022 year, a whole row of 15 people, which was an incredible thing to see. I spoke with students from all over the country and local Bostoners as well. I saw people working on Robot arms, and even small robot spiders. There were people working on Machine Learning Projects, Software Engineering, Crypto, Hardware, Health, Finance, everything you can think of.

But arguably the most important thing I took away from HackMIT was the conversation I had with one of the mentors. I asked him the same question that had been bothering me for the past year. “What do you recommend to someone who’s interested in going the self-taught path?” He then asked me what I had been doing for the past year and what I was planning on doing. And so, I told him about all the things I had been learning, and the things I was planning to do. Then he asked me “What was it that I wanted to do?” And that was when I became stuck for a moment, I couldn’t answer that question. That was when he gave me the following advice:

“Take things one step at a time and master your basics. Once you’ve got your basics down, seriously dedicate your focus to one area. You can’t be a master of everything.”

Even after going to Harvard, HackUTD, TreeHacks and so many other hackathons afterwards, I always think back to this piece of advice. Though I say that, I didn’t really take the advice to heart until much later.

Post Hack-MIT: Harvard, TreeHacks and others

After HackMIT, due to a genuine strange series of events I went on to represent a non-profit at Hack Harvard two weeks later. That’s where I got to meet my mentor from HackMIT which made for a great surprise reaction. I also got to meet the famous David J. Malan himself, the very instructor of CS50. I also got to speak and interact with almost every single hacker that was at Hack Harvard, I got to be a judge for once, and ended up seeing some truly incredible projects. Hack Harvard didn’t leave as deep an impact on me, but it was definitely very positive experience.

After that came TreeHacks and that’s when I really went all out. I wanted to do something fun and unique, if there’s one thing you can criticize hackathons for sometimes, is the over-seriousness of the projects. I admire the passion and commitment, but there’s also room for over-the-top fun projects as well. And overall, I believe my project at TreeHacks fit the bill to a t. Just for reference, I aimed for the best Cyberpunk hack category. TreeHacks was a lot of fun and it truly wowed me. We had all sorts of guest speakers, unbelievable prizes, and some crazy talent from the hackers themselves. If you’re interested in some of the details feel free to check out their medium article for 2023 ( TreeHacks 2023 Article ). Following those Hackathons, I ended up attending HackUTD and a couple of others as well.

Here I am working on Project Mira at TreeHacks

My Hackathon Malaise

Ever since TreeHacks ended 8 months ago, I’ve had this sort of malaise regarding hackathons, studying computer-science and other related topics. Now that I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and after experiencing hackathons again last week I’ve finally figured it out. It all comes down to 2 things.

  • The reason I started doing hackathons in the first place.
  • The important advice every mentor has given me.

I started doing hackathons because I knew that I didn’t know a thing about programming and technology. But that was 2 years ago, I’ve come a long way and finally have a solid grasp of what’s out there, and what I would need to do to pursue any field I’m interested in. That leads me to a very important question:

“What is it that I want to do, what is it that I want to be?”

At my last two hackathons, HackSMU V and HackUTA 2023, I was mostly frustrated and tired. After thinking back on everything, I finally figured out what my issue was: It was that I started to work on things without direction. To me Hackathons are places where you can push yourself to the limit to work on a project YOU find interesting. To push yourself to get better and to start work on things that you care about. I haven’t been doing that, I’ve caught myself in the trap that my Mentor at HackMIT and many others have told me about, “You’re trying to do everything, but no one can be a master of everything”

My first 2 years of hackathons were incredible, they helped me grow immensely both as a person and as an overall developer. But the thing is that I haven’t taken an important step, and that is; “To work on becoming a great developer, To work on becoming a great engineer”. The hackathon format doesn’t lend itself well to long-term learning just by the nature of the format. Hackathons are places for hackers to take the first steps in things they are interested in and passionate about. They are there to help you take your first steps toward your actual goals.

I’ve taken my first steps and although I’m still in the middle of mastering the basics, it’s time for me to start thinking about what I want to focus on. To start thinking about the kind of engineer I want to be, and the path I want to take.

To others stuck in similar situation as me, I invite you to ask a similar question.

What type of engineer do you want to be?

What path do you want to take?

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