A Hackathon How-to

by Diana Drake

Wesley P., a junior at Jericho High School in Long Island, N.Y., has had an incredibly busy summer. Along with a team of eight other high school students, including co-founder Jeffrey Yu, Wesley has been reaching out to companies, securing sponsors, organizing workshops, lining up speakers, and exploring all the possibilities as the co-founder and director of TeenHacks LI, Long Island’s only active 24-hour hackathon for students, by students.

TeenHacks LI brings together 60 teen programmers, designers, makers and leaders from New York and surrounding U.S. states for 24 straight hours of project development and innovation. “Our team really kicked it into gear this summer,” notes Wesley, who has so far partnered with 15 sponsors to provide everything from drinks and food to hardware for the free event — to be held at The Coder School Syosset — and has more than 25 students signed up to attend even before the start of the school year. “I can’t wait to stand up in front of everyone at the actual event and see our six months of work pay off,” he adds.

Hackathons are big business around the world, and come in all shapes and sizes, from large corporate forums and campus-based all-nighters, to smaller events like TeenHacks LI. The unifying threads? Curiosity, ideas, and loads of Red Bull. With the STEM push toward coding for all students, hackathons are taking their place on extracurricular wish lists.

Wesley has learned a thing or two about the coding culture during his months immersed in the world of computer science and programmers. He has four keywords for hackers-in-training as they learn the language of the hackathon.

Collaborate. “When people hear the conventional word “hacking” they think about a virus or someone who is hacking into your computer. It’s associated with something negative,” Wesley explains. “We want to change the connotation of the word “hacking” into something that means “collaborative coding.” Hacking can be any project or creation that involves people coming together and putting their heads together with their skills and their computer science knowledge to create something.” Those people include engineers, programmers, designers, entrepreneurs and anyone else who’s curious to learn.

Brainstorm. Experts like to point out that innovation works best when it happens in teams that play off each other and exchange insights and ideas. Hackathons often promote that culture. A hackathon is a safe, collaborative space for people to work together and share ideas, says Wesley. “We want to push people to communicate and collaborate. That is needed in the computer science world. A stereotype is that computer science people are bad at communicating. Events like this push people to work together in teams of two to four. You can work by yourself, but at TeenHacks LI, only groups of two to four people will be eligible for prizes.”

Innovate. At a hackathon, you’re creating something from the ground up in 24 hours, whether it is hardware, software, an application or a website, notes Wesley, who has hung out at a few hackathons in the past year and has witnessed some memorable hacks. “One project involved an application that helped people escape fires safely. With the map of a building, it would take you to the closest exit to avoid the fire. In another example, someone created a website that helped you follow different movements like Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives and see the clothing trends of those movements. The website gave you a description of the movement and then all the apparel related to that movement. It would be easier for you to support a particular movement and to know what you were supporting.” Hackathons often help to develop the seed of an idea that could become a legitimate product or service with continued time, energy and resources.

Explore. Wesley hears this a lot: “I know some coding, but I’m not sure I’m good enough to go to a hackathon.” As someone who only just discovered coding a year ago, he urges his friends and fellow hackers to feel motivated by the hackathon culture, not intimidated. TeenHacks LI has lined up workshops taught by professionals and mentors to enrich the learning for hackers of all levels. “A huge stigma of hackathons is that you’re not into computer science or it looks too scary. You’ll never know unless you try. I like to take the ‘why not?’ mentality,” says Wesley. “What’s the worst that can happen? It’s 24 hours on a weekend. Going into a hackathon with that frame of mind is imperative. I think you need to push yourself to try any opportunity you can. I’ve also heard coders say that they regret not going to a hackathon. You have fun and learn a lot about yourself.”

Wesley Pergament is co-founder and director of TeenHacksLI.
Wesley P. is co-founder and director of TeenHacks LI.

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Conversation Starters

What is collaborative coding and why is collaboration such an important part?

Do you have any hackathon experiences, both as a participant and/or an organizer? Share them in the comments section! We’d love to hear about your projects.

  1. Why do you think hackathons are so popular? Is it all about becoming competitive in the marketplace? What are some other reasons?

2 comments on “A Hackathon How-to

  1. This article has taught me all about collaborative coding which is all about approaching problems and discovering solutions together. It involves techniques like pair programming, which a range of technology companies use very seriously. Moreover, collaboration is a very important part of collaborative coding because it is all about working together in a group to figure out problems and solve the problems.

  2. I hate to admit it, but when I first thought of a hackathon back in Freshman year, I thought it was a malicious event where hackers gather to try and cause damage to companies. Thinking back to it now, it definitely seems silly, but seeing that I was one of your targeted audience for your entrepreneur idea, I’d say your idea is really solid.
    When you saw a lack of hackathons in our community, Long Island, you took the initiative to host a local tournament. Stuck in quarantine, your hackathon, which was recommended to me by my AP Computer Science teacher, was a new outlet for me to spend my time. I still remember the distinctness of the event. Not only was it an amazing hackathon, but you also introduced a brand new aspect to the event: Panels and Games. I still recall the memorable Entrepreneurship, Cryptocurrency, and Machine learning Panel on top of the competition. I received insight into what makes a good leader and was exposed to hot technologies. Your new addition indubitably made the event more entertaining and attracted more participants. By adding a brand new aspect to the hackathon, you separated your event from the countless other hackathons that just have coding competitions.
    Though the event was virtual, the aura was as if we were all gathered in one room. The vibe tended to be more collaborative, rather than competitive and cutthroat. This crafted new opportunities for the development of friendships with other competitors. Not only did I get the eventful hackathon promised, but the exposure to various aspects of the STEM x CS field.
    However, what truly separates you from the other entrepreneurial stories is that you’re only a coder with a year or so of experience. This makes your feat much more impressive since you were brave enough to bring more experienced coders together. You are helping more people get involved in STEM and building a community in the process. I connected with people from other schools and created lasting memories all thanks to you. After reading your journey, I am inspired to be proactive, look out for opportunities like you did, and become an entrepreneur where I can embrace the entrepreneur spirit myself.

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