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The humble hackathon

We at Cybernews Academy have stumbled upon the weird and wonderful world of hackathons. Everyone has probably heard the term– but what is a hackathon, its point, and how does it benefit large businesses, individuals, and students? We have found that this event is vibrant and diverse, with a vast community and a broad reach. Therefore, we wanted to examine hackathons closely to determine what they’re all about while showcasing how vital these events are to universities, communities, and society.

The origins of hackathons

The origins of the hackathon date back to the year 1999, although some speculate that hackathons have been going on for decades prior. According to Medium, developers of OpenBSD were the first company to host what we know now as a hackathon. The company is a security-oriented, free, open-source system and is the self-proclaimed originator of the hackathon. The term hackathon came to fruition during a cryptographic event in Calgary, Canada, in 1999. Medium states that this hackathon comprised “10 developers who came together to avoid legal trouble caused by export regulations of cryptographic software from the United States.” According to the originator OpenBSD, “Hackathons are about writing code. At hackathons, there is an attempt to get new changes into the source tree quickly. Since people from many different time zones are in the same room, development is almost around the clock.” This is one of the ways you can describe hackathons, but they encompass so much more than writing code.

What are hackathons?

The term hackathon has a multitude of different definitions depending on what site you visit. This word combines the words hacking and marathon, which evokes the image of ethical hackers slumped over a computer screen surrounded by a team of collaborators. However, a hackathon is more than that. Typically, a hackathon is an event where people enter into fast-paced, collaborative engineering over a short period– these events usually take place over 24 to 48 hours. Hackathons are about collaborating with others, developing teamwork, adaptability, and critical thinking skills, alongside finding solutions to problems. The hackathon is a creative endeavor where different minds collaborate on a common goal.

Different types of hackathons

Hackathons come in various types and formats, offering new insights into interests, skills, and goals. The two main types of hackathons are internal and external. Companies may conduct an internal hackathon to spark innovation and solve industry problems. External hackathons are open to people from different companies, fields of expertise, and other outside sources. These external hackathons may be used to recruit new talent into businesses or build relationships with organizations.

Below, we have listed some hackathon subcategories that may help you understand how hackathons are constructed:

General Hackathons

These hackathons are fluid, allowing participants to work on any project or idea. They typically don't have a specific theme or challenge and allow you the space to work on your independent project and present your ideas to professionals.

Theme-specific hackathons

These hackathons have an established theme or focus area– ethical hackers must work on projects related to their specific theme. A few examples include health or tech hackathons, environmental hackathons, or fintech hackathons.

University hackathons

University hackathons are events where students solve pre-defined problems for private, public, or third-party organizations. Every university will conduct its hackathons differently, so your hackathon may look different depending on your location. University hackathons are often used to build relationships between local businesses. This process fosters innovation and allows students to develop company relationships to find career opportunities. Many different universities across the globe host their own hackathons that enable students to collaborate on projects and build solutions to complex problems.

Virtual or online hackathons

Virtual or online hackathons have become more common recently in response to global events like COVID-19. People come together over the internet, to work on projects without the need to attend in person. Participants can attend these hackathons via Zoom, Slack, and other virtual meeting platforms.

Open-source hackathons

These hackathons focus on contributing to open-source software projects. Those who attend open-source hackathons will collaborate on developing existing open-source projects. Certain companies will give participants more time to complete this hackathon, as open-source projects take longer.

Game jams

Game jams are hackathons specifically designed for game development. During game jams, people often create video games, board games, or other interactive games from scratch in a short amount of time. The event usually lasts 24 to 72 hours, depending on the format.

What happens at a hackathon?

At a hackathon, students, employees, and external parties engage in various activities that typically revolve around critical thinking, problem-solving, and innovation. The specific events and activities can vary depending on the hackathon's format and goals. This event usually spans 24-48 hours, and hackathons may run according to a set plan involving some food and drink breaks.

Here’s a breakdown of how the day may run:

Registration and kick-off

Those who participate in a hackathon will meet at a specific location, a venue, or an online space. The event usually begins with a kick-off session where organizers introduce the event, the rules and regulations, potential sponsors, and how the day will pan out.

Teaming up

Depending on the hackathon's rules, you can often form teams, join existing groups, or work individually. Team formation can happen before the hackathon or during the kick-off session.


Once the teams are formed, you will begin brainstorming ideas for your collaborative project. This stage involves discussing the hackathon's theme or challenge, identifying problems to solve, and conceptualizing potential solutions.

Project development

After deciding on a project idea, these teams of people or individuals will begin the development process. This process can involve writing code, designing user interfaces, building prototypes, conducting research, or working with data. Participants work intensively on their projects throughout the hackathon.

Presentation prep

Teams will begin preparing their projects' presentations or demos in this stage. They may create a presentation, rehearse pitches, and ensure their projects are presentable.

Presenting the product

At the end of the hackathon, each team typically has a set amount of time to present their project to a panel of judges and sometimes a live audience. From there, judges assess each team's creations based on criteria. This criterion may include innovation, functionality, presentation, and relevance to the hackathon's theme or challenges.

What kinds of people participate in hackathons?

Think back to that image of ethical hackers slumped over a computer ferociously coding. Although this may be characteristic of hackathons, coders aren’t the only ones participating in these events. According to Medium, you will find a “mix of developers, data scientists, and programmers,” but many other types of people also participate. Project managers, designers, and entrepreneurs may also feature in these teams, as different skills are needed to create a cohesive product. Hackathons aim to produce an end product. Therefore, a diverse range of people is required in order to create something incredible.

The benefits of hackathons

Hackathons have many benefits that can aid the development of individuals, businesses, and the wider community. There are too many benefits to mention, so here are just a few we at Cybernews Academy have encountered during our research.


These events provide networking opportunities for those willing to participate in hackathons. This environment facilitates unique opportunities for collaboration and networking with other professional programmers, developers, entrepreneurs, and businesses.

Learn and develop new skills

The amount of skills needed to participate in a hackathon is immense. In this short time, you will learn collaborative skills like teamwork and communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, and team management. These skills are vital for a career in IT, demonstrating how valuable hackathons are to your future career.


If you plan to participate in a competitive event, you can expect prizes such as money and other rewards. You could receive tech items and gadgets alongside additional bonuses like merchandise like cups, t-shirts, and bags.

New ideas

Working with others in a collaborative setting will inevitably inspire new ideas. During these sessions, teams brainstorm to try and come up with solutions to problems. Through the medium of hackathons, businesses, applications, and other technologies have been created. By collaborating with others, you could develop new ideas that could transform your business, help you build a company, or solve problems related to your academic work.

New talent

For businesses, hackathons are a great way to recruit new talent into the industry, as hackathons showcase the skills of professional developers, programmers, and other IT professionals.

Promotion of diversity and inclusion

Hackathons encourage diversity and inclusion by hosting an event where people from all backgrounds, genders, and education levels can collaborate to work on a project.

Where can I participate?

You can find hackathons on dedicated hackathon websites, which will give you more information on how to participate and where these events are being held. You can even find hackathons on Facebook and other social media sites. Universities often host hackathons, City, University of London, HackMIT at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Princeton Open Hackathon at Princeton University, and PennAppsXXIII at the University of Pennsylvania are some examples to note. Independent companies like Amazon host their Sustainability Data Initiative hackathons, demonstrating the versatility of hackathons as there really is something for everyone.

Hackathons are vibrant and diverse events used to create some really unique products. These events have been ongoing for decades and have grown in popularity in recent years. As hackathons have become so popular, there are various places where you can attend in-person and online events. Hackathons are cross-disciplinary, which helps promote inclusivity and diversity, as many different types of people are needed to create an unbelievable product. As said before, there is something for everyone regarding the incredible world of hackathons. So, what are you waiting for? Check out an online forum, local events page, or enquire at your university if you want to network, collaborate with others, or try something new.