Getting Started with Hackathons

Alex Zharichenko

Head's up, this has not been updated in a while!

What is a hackathon?

A hackathon is generally, as MLH best described, an "invention marathon". These events typically last between 24-36 hours where either by yourself or preferably with a team of about 2-6 people come up with an idea and build a prototype. These events are either themed where they have problems in mind for you to try to solve. Or they are a general hackathon where the focus is more on learning or trying something new.

Why go to a hackathon?

There are many reasons to do so!

  • They allow you to get outside your comfort zone with coding.

    • Ever wanted to use a new programming language, framework, library, or API? This is your excuse to do so! Even if you'll never use that language, library, etc. after the hackathon, the process of just experimenting and learning will open up new ideas of how you approach future problems.
  • They allow you to build up your problem-solving skills.

    • Themed hackathons especially challenge you to collaborate with others to work through and ponder deeply about a current problem.
  • You get to have a fun experience either your friends or total strangers.

    • Seriously, you get to have fun collaborating and solving problems together. And even goofing around and having a little bit of fun while you're at it.
    • Sometimes going in blind and just finding people without teams can yield amazing results and create friends or connections that will benefit you later in your career.
    • Personal note: I went to a lot of hackathons with my friends and they were good times, but when I went to one and found others, our team killed it and became finalists for one hackathon
  • It's a dedicated time out of your busy school life to finally try that new programming language or start that personal project you been wanting to do.

    • Seriously, I'll admit it. I'm too lazy during the school year to build or make anything. But in a hackathon you get the time, motivation, and inspiration to go through and build something. And with everyone around you doing that same thing it seriously motivates you.
  • And most importantly, they can be incredibly rewarding.

    • A common point I wanna hear out of any hackathon participant is that, regardless if someone won or not, they are proud of what they accomplished and built and did not care that they didn't win.

What makes a good hackathon?

Pretty much any hackathon can be a good hackathon. As long as you have wifi, a space to work, food, and a place to sleep your experience should be golden. But, there is always typically one part of a hackathon that can make or break the experience, judging.

Judging at a hackathon is a difficult task because it's essentially asking the question of who made the best hack? Some hackathons choose to focus on judging the hack itself. As in, you present what you have made to the judges and having it be more focused on creation a prototype. This kind of judging is more favorable because when the winning projects are present it's clear that the team or individual put a considerable amount of effort into their hack.

Some other hackathons focus more on the ideas and solutions behind your hack with having a prototype being a little supplemental to your pitch. If a hackathon balances it right with favoring people who make great progress on a prototype more then the experience should be fine.

But the worst hackathons devolve into pitching competitions. Pitching competitions suck because they are more focused on presenting an idea rather than building and hacking something together. These hackathons can easily breakdown when prizes are announced because teams that didn't build anything can win because of their pitch, souring your experience since you actually tried to make something. These are more frequent in themed hackathons than general hackathons.

Tips for attending a hackathon

  • Never do it alone, find some friends or strangers at the event. It will make it memorable and fun!
  • The goal is not to win the hackathon, but rather to try/learn something new and/or build up problem-solving skills.

    • What I mean by problem-solving skills is thinking about an existing problem, coming up with potential solutions, and being able to engineer a prototype.
  • Sleep!!! Seriously, do not pull an all-nighter they're not worth it.

    • Your brain will increasingly struggle to code, solve problems, pitch ideas, or communicate with people.
    • My recommendation is to get a full night or minimum of 6 hours of sleep, the benefits and amount of progress you'll make will pay off the time gone from sleeping.
  • If you are staying and sleeping at the event, bring a pillow, a sleeping bag, and especially toiletries like deodorant and a toothbrush with some toothpaste. Maybe even a change of clothes, but you'll probably get enough free t-shirt to change into.

What hackathons are here at Pitt?

Here at the Pitt, we have a great diversity of hackathons for you to attend over the school year. These include SteelHacks, SheInnovates, and the Pitt Challenge. Each of these hackathons functions differently, with different goals and themes in mind. Let's explore through them!


Steelhacks is one of the largest hackathons in Pittsburgh and is an MLH affiliated event. This is put on directly by the School of Computing and Information and the is just a general hackathon with no specific theme. This event is incredibly fun, and due to its general nature allows you to make or build whatever you want. This is event is the closet to a sort of true form of a hackathon where it's more about you build, learning, and experimenting. We don't offer cash prizes, but instead lesser but fairly good prizes such as computer monitors, good wireless headphones, etc.


SheInnovates is our Women's Hackathon (though men can participate). This is also run through the School of Computing and Information with the help of WICS (Women in Computer Science). This is a great hackathon for beginners, especially women. A lot of the participants experience their first hackathon at SheInnovates and is kept a very comfortable and open atmosphere. This hackathon is not an MLH affiliated event and, just like SteelHacks, doesn't have cash prizes but has still fairly good prizes. The reason for this is we find that MLH and cash prizes can make the event fairly competitive and possibly turn away individuals that aren't comfortable participating in such an event.

The Pitt Challenge

Pitt Challenge is a hackathon that's themed and focused on healthcare problems and is an MLH affiliated event. With being a themed hackathon their challenges are specified ahead of time and this hackathon is more competitive as their prizes are usually bigger than SteelHacks and SheInnovates typically includes cash prizes. This hackathon is put on by the School of Pharmacy and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

Interested in organizing one of Pitt's amazing hackathons? Contact me at!

Last updated: Jan 12th 2021