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‘Simply Knowing How to Code Isn’t Enough’

Over the last several years, hackathons have gone from being competitions for geeks to a must-have line on the resume of almost any job seeker. HSE University students are participating in these kinds of competitions more and more often, and they sometimes even organize their own. Alexander Popovkin, head of HSE’s Hacking Club, spoke with HSE News Service about the benefits and drawbacks of hackathons.

Who Participates in a Hackathon?

The main point of the club is to give people organizational support and to help them prepare for tournaments. The university offers a wide range of hackathons, so we help people determine which ones are worth competing in and which ones aren’t. A lot of students want to participate in them but many end up not doing so because of the requirement that you need to have your own team, while others have problems with coming up with ideas. There’s a need for a community where students can meet like-minded people. By removing these roadblocks, we increase the number of hackathon participants and improve competition performance. We also organize workshops on a regular basis, including ones that we hold right before hackathons. For example, on the night before Hack.Moscow v3.0, we hosted a training session on mobile development.

The Hackers Club based at the Faculty of Computer Science is now in its second year. At first, the club was founded to help students train for competitions, but now the club plans to organize its own events. The first hackathon, organized by HSE together with the company, SAS, will be held in late November at the Cultural Centre on Pokrovka. You can register here (in Russian).

Mike Swift, one of the organizers of Hack.Moscow v3.0 and founder of the international league, Major League Hacking, recently visited HSE. His team organizes the biggest tournaments in America and Europe. He shared with us his experience working with American universities and told us how to organize a competition at a university. A university can be a platform, provide experts, and produce content – this could be a concept or a master class programme. Indeed, unlike Olympiads with their rigidly prescribed rules, the hackathon is a vast expanse for the imagination.

Who Hosts the Hackathons

The majority of participants in fact already know each other. There are permanent teams that can be seen at almost every hackathon. Others, on the contrary, specialize in virtual reality, and never participate in blockchain competitions. The goal is not for a team to simply compete in endless competitions. Ideally, it should lead to a startup. But when a hackathon is organized by a company, it has other tasks—such as recruiting employees, for example.

If a hackathon is organized by a company, it is important for the competition jury to include representatives from that company. Usually during the competition they organize mentoring rounds for the participants. At the beginning of the hackathon, mentors try to provide assistance and guidance, and, towards the end, they try to understand what you’ve managed to do. These mentoring rounds are important, because, otherwise, when the organizer says, ‘Here are the experts, please ask your questions’, no one will ask any questions. But here, too, you have to make sure you do it in the right way. If a group of 15 people approaches a team of 5, it puts a lot of pressure on the team. I prefer a more casual format: a mentor comes and sits in a nearby chair and asks you what you’re having trouble with, what idea you’re working on. In other words, the mentor provides guidance and advice—it puts less pressure on the participants.

Hackathons were really started by the industry—by companies like Microsoft, IBM, and Google. The competitions would draw young specialists, and the companies would recruit talented employees from these pools of participants.

A few years ago, in Russia, anyone and everyone started doing hackathons, though no one understood what exactly a hackathon was and how it should work. People organized 6-month-long online competitions and called them hackathons. Now all the hype is starting to die down and only the organizations that run really high-quality hackathons, like Russian Hackers and the American Cultural Center, remain on the market. Russian Hackers is a group comprised of alums from HSE and MIPT (Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology) who organized their first competitions when they were still students.

Mike Swift and Russian Hackers: Alexey Frolov, Maria Andreeva, Alexander Prosolkin, Maxim Dyakov, Alexander Malyshev

You don’t have to be afraid of participating in the hackathons hosted by these organizations. Even if you are participating for the first time, you will have a good experience. After all, whether students decide to continue participating in hackathons in the future or not depends on their initial experience with one.

Where Universities Come in

A hackathon is an interdisciplinary competition. It is desirable that teams are diverse. For example, in a game programming tournament, if you do not have designers or artists on your team, you will not be able to make 3D models or draw. Mixed teams that have not only programmers, but designers, humanities students, marketing students, and psychologists as well are the best—they usually give the best performances. An advantage to having a hackathon in a university environment is that you can get students from different faculties involved.

To organize a hackathon, experience alone is not enough. Companies and universities have the necessary resources for it. To start with, a university can provide a venue (somewhere on campus) and participants (students). But a lot of universities don’t have an understanding of why hackathons are important. Olympiads are run in a way that is similar to the educational process itself—students are given tasks that need to solved. They are approved by all departments, but this is an academic track that is focused on training future researchers.

A hackathon is an answer to a real demand from the industry for specific skills here and now

As Mike Swift notes, students participating in a hackathon enhance their professional portfolio. Though you can’t work yet, but by the time you graduate, you must have several projects to show to your employer. Winning a hackathon not only give you a cash prize, but an excellent line on your resume that shows you know how to work in a team in a high pressure setting. This is an important skill that companies highly value. In addition, applicants to HSE and MIPT who have won a hackathon are likely to be given preference in admission to certain specialized master’s programmes.

Is a Hackathons Just an Olympiad for D Students?

At the club’s first meeting this year, first-year students wondered whether the team would have any need for them. As it turns out, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.

Even if you don’t have the necessary knowledge, join the team and start googling with them – and you’re already an asset

Some who are just starting out come to hackathons to learn. Firstly, various master classes are held there. It’s clear that you can’t learn something within a few hours, but in addition to the experts conducting the classes, there are mentors on site. You can listen, start trying it on your own, and receive feedback. I think that first-timers don’t go to hackathons to win; rather, they go to learn the technology of the competition itself.

Hackathons cannot replace the educational process, but they can complement it. Unlike traditional educational formats, the team learning process is not boring. This is satisfying for students—they not only work together on a task, but turn a project idea they’ve been toiling over into a reality.

If at the hackathon you’ve come up with something that requires a week’s worth of work but you only have 48 hours, put it on the back burner and focus on what you can do right now. This causes many participants to burn out—they put all their efforts into a project that is better done over the course of a week. At a hackathon, participants need to be flexible.

This is similar to an Olympiad format. There are tasks—so-called ‘coffins’—that no one will be able to solve over the course of the whole Olympiad. Even if you are a multiple programming world champion or a scholar, you cannot solve these kinds of tasks within a few hours. Managing to complete 20% of your idea, which can nevertheless be presented to the jury as a full-fledged stage of the project, is considered normal.

Blanket, Ear Plugs, and a System Unit

I participated in competitions for five years, and then I started organizing the Microsoft Imagine Cup hackathons. But I did not immediately start winning. However, after two or three years I had a team who I won all the hackathons with. It is all about experience. When you have a team where all the members understand each other with just half a phrase or half a look—when you don’t need to spend time explaining who should do what—you can solve tasks very quickly.

It is also not worth traveling from one hackathon to another. Usually part of the competition takes place at night. You really only sleep for about three hours with your head on the table (although some students can sleep on a chair in a Tetris position, and it’s no big deal). For this reason, after participating in these kinds of competitions for five years, I told my team that we will not be going to more than one hackathon a month. Otherwise, it is bad for your health.

At night, you feel that time is endless. The air conditioner is turned on so that team members can concentrate better, and sleeping bodies lay on sofas and ottomans. This should be taken into account, because in addition to a laptop and a charger, I advise participants to bring a blanket, ear plugs, and a sleeping mask so that the light doesn’t disturb them. I used to take a second monitor with me to so that it would be easier for me to work. Some teams brought desktop computers with them. At a video game hackathon, some students managed to bring a real gaming computer with monitors. Nobody disqualified them for this—to the contrary, they smiled and took pictures with them.

The hackathon has an informal atmosphere and a lot of space for creativity, which creates perfect conditions for developing a startup. In this type of competition, you need soft skills; you need to be able to work in a team and present your ideas to a large audience. Simply knowing how to code isn’t enough.

See also:

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