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What is a hackathon?

What is a hackathon?

Developers are creative people – they have to be. Developing software and web applications isn’t just about knowing how programming languages work; it’s about applying that technical knowledge to solve real-world problems in creative ways.

One of the best examples of this creativity is the hackathon. Hackathons, AKA hack days, hackfests or codefests, are special events where developers and other technical people get together to collaborate on projects in a social environment.

Hackathons are about “hacking” in the positive sense: creative problem-solving and innovation on top of existing technology.

Hackathon history

The first event to be labelled a “hackathon” was held in June 1999 in Calgary, Canada, based around the OpenBSD operating system.

Since then, hackathons have become regular fixtures worldwide, sponsored or held by a variety of technology companies, open-source communities, government organisations and academic institutions.

Some of the most prestigious hackathons are now organised by universities, such as PennApps (University of Pennsylvania) and MHacks (University of Michigan) – with some of the best students from around the world participating.

How hackathons are structured

Hackathons are usually focused on a certain language, framework, operating system or API, with the end-goal of a product or feature that addresses a specific requirement. Some hackathons also include a competitive element, with judges awarding prizes for the best-performing and most innovative projects.

These events are intense, sometimes lasting several days, with developers coding non-stop to reach their goals – hackathon attendees are no strangers to pizza, energy drinks and sleeping bags.

And because hackathons are so removed from the everyday working environment, they encourage developers to experiment, take risks and come up with creative solutions that might never see the light of day in a normal office setting.

Networking (the social kind)

Hackathons are also excellent opportunities for networking and sharing knowledge.

With many developers working with a wide range of technologies – some of which they may not be intimately familiar with – collaboration is a must. This in turn fosters closer relationships, builds industry contacts and expands the knowledge of everyone involved.

On open-source projects with developers around the world, hackathons can be the only time devs can meet and work face to face – this makes the hackathon a social meetup, just as much as it is a professional event.

Hackathon results = viable products

While hackathons are great opportunities to play around with technology in a relatively low-risk environment, they also regularly deliver outstanding results.

Hackathon results might not always seem valuable at first glance, but they can very often serve as the foundations to build something else later. Even if a feature or service isn’t immediately useful or practical, proving that it can be achieved in the first place can be a crucial development breakthrough.

For example, internal Facebook hackathons helped produce features as iconic as the “Like” button and even the Facebook Timeline itself. And here at Fasthosts, work done at previous internal hackathons has contributed to some of the management tools currently used in our customer control panel.

Fasthosts at CloudFest Hackathon

Held earlier this month, this year’s CloudFest was a huge event including conferences on all aspects of the cloud and web hosting industry – and the annual CloudFest Hackathon was a major part of it. Fasthosts was there, represented by several developers working on projects at the forefront of cloud technology.

Building on the results of last year’s CloudFest Hackathon, the project was based on an open-source platform maintained by event sponsor Intel, with the new objective of integrating internet of things (IoT) devices with cloud services more effectively.

As Fasthosts developer Jessica Smith explains: “This year was about adding more features to the platform and proving it could work end to end. It was about finding a way to have lots of IoT devices talking to each other in the cloud.”

”CloudFest

Over three long days, developers from a wide range of companies and backgrounds toiled relentlessly on this and several additional projects – such as a method of integrating two-factor authentication into FTP servers, where Fasthosts developers also took an active role.

And it was all worth it, as Jessica points out: “It was pretty intense; we were working late into the evening. It was a proper hackathon and there was a real focus on producing something usable – and at the end we had everything running nicely on a Kubernetes cluster.”

Jessica also appreciated the opportunity to work outside her comfort zone and stretch her skills: “although I used my knowledge of Kubernetes clusters, I was working on an IoT project I would never work on in the office. And I was deploying technologies I had no experience with, like Hadoop databases – I’d never worked with those, so it was really interesting.”

”CloudFest

You can see a recap of CloudFest Hackathon in this video, as well as a detailed breakdown of the results here. Inspired to take part in a hackathon yourself? Whether you’re an experience developer or just starting out, Fasthosts offers a full range of online solutions, including a next-generation cloud hosting platform. Get in contact to find out more.

Neal Thoms's picture

Neal Thoms

Author As a content creator for Fasthosts, Neal’s main focus is cloud technology and how it’s transforming everything we do online. He’s worked in the web hosting industry for over five years.