A few months ago, I decided to pursue a new career path. After spending years in graduate school specializing in energy-efficiency of mobile platforms and being a developer in the same field, I felt it was time for change. So, I joined the Internet of Things (IoT) Community Evangelism team at Intel Corporation where I introduce Intel technologies and provide technical support during Intel supported IoT hackathons. I had never attended a hackathon prior to joining the new team, so I had my own notions of the hackathon environment, and they were not all that rosy.
Less than a couple of months into the job, I had to support my first hackathon, the Intel Roadshow in Seattle, Washington followed by Hackster Hardware Weekend in Portland, Oregon. I worked hard to ramp up prior to the events, but there was so much to learn. However, the experience was AMAZING because it busted all the myths that I had about hackathons. Here is how!!
Myth 1: If you are not an expert, you don’t belong at a hackathon.
You truly don’t have to be an expert in order to participate or attend a hackathon. The environment is really meant for learning and no one expects you to know everything beforehand. For instance, as I was providing technical support to various teams, I encountered unique issues that I wasn’t particularly familiar with. I did my best to solve them but, in some instances, I had to consult with my team members. Despite not having all the answers, they still had great respect for me and viewed me as another team member trying to solve the problem with them instead of viewing me as a person who is trying to solve the problem for them. It is very reassuring and encouraging to be in an environment where not knowing all the answers does not mark you as a failure.
Myth 2: Hackathons are for 18 to 30 year old males.
The participants did not fit the expected stereotype. As a matter of fact, the Maker community is really diverse. I am not going to pretend that, in terms of gender representation, the participants were split 50/50. However, women made up about 30% of all participants and many of them took great leadership roles. As a woman in technology and a strong advocate for increasing women’s participation in STEM fields, I was pleasantly surprised and proud!
If you are younger or older and think that a hackathon is not for you, you need to think again. The age bracket is very diverse as well. I have met a participant as young as eleven years old working with his dad on a project, a couple over the age of sixty five and, of course, everything in between.
Myth 3: You need a team and an idea before the big day.
No, you don’t really need a team or an idea before the big day. On the first day of a hackathon, you observe participants from different backgrounds coming together. Often times, participants meet at the events and then work in sync in order to produce one creative project. Other times, it is a family affair where the teams include siblings, spouses, and even a father and son. Due to the nature of the Maker community, teams with participants with diverse backgrounds tend to excel. Therefore, the differences in backgrounds are celebrated, sought after, and welcomed. How awesome is that?!!
Also, it is very natural not to have a project idea prior to attending. As a matter of fact, the environment has its own special aura. It buzzes with creativity and inspiration. So, attending the events without having a pre-conceived idea is absolutely a good idea because it enables participants to remain open to new things.
Myth 4: Participants are extremely competitive.
Despite the fact that the groups are competing for monetary prizes, they are not competitive to the detriment of others. As a matter of fact, it is a collaborative environment and participants are there to learn and teach each other. They don’t shy away from sharing their own ideas freely and helping other teams in refining theirs. There is no ego that stands in the way of the learning experience and the fun. For example, even though a participant, Ken Olson, was very busy working on his project, the Low-Cost Workshop Robot, he still took the time to teach me how to solder for the first time in my life. That was definitely the highlight of my day. If that spirit is not incredible, I am not sure what is!
Myth 5: It is all about the #1 spot.
Sure, winning is a great privilege for any team but the participants don’t allow the competition to taint the sense of community among them. During the demo time, it is a complete family affair. Spouses, partners, parents, kids, and friends show up to support their hackers. During the presentations, everybody is attentive, and then, in between presentations, the room buzzes with discussions and exchange of ideas. What really showcases the sense of community is the fact that when a team completes its presentation, other team members give them the nod of approval, thumbs ups, and/or an encouraging smile as they retreat to the end of the room. This behavior is the epitome of the definition of a supportive crowd.
So, go ahead and liberate your inner hacker! Be part of this amazing, growing Maker community and I guarantee you will not regret it, and you will learn so much in the process. But I must warn you: you may become addicted…