Hackathons: intense and innovative programming retreats

What looks like an e-sport event with a load of gamers, is in reality an event where innovative projects are started, out-of-of-the-box thinking is cultivated, and important contacts made: this is a hackathon. It is a productive conference for software and hardware developers. In a hackathon, programmers work on a problem for a limited time and sometimes achieve astonishing projects and come up with brilliant ideas.

What is a hackathon?

The term hackathon is a blended word – a combination of “hacking” and “marathon.” However, if broken down in this way, the term could mislead many people, as hacking is usually associated with destructive, criminal activities. But this is not what is meant with a hackathon. “Hacking” in this context refers to solving technical problems in new and innovative ways. The approach of a hackathon is very constructive, and programmers work to create a useful product during these events.

Applying the term “marathon” to a hackathon is also not quite accurate. Although concentrated programming work is also hard work, generally speaking, software development is a time-consuming, drawn-out task. In a hackathon, on the other hand, you get a limited time slot, and the goal is that within a few hours or days, a working program code should be created – a strenuous sprint in application development, rather than a marathon.

Hackathons are usually centered around a certain topic, which in turn has an influence on the participants. There are developer conferences on certain types of applications (mobile apps, web applications, etc.), on a certain programming language, for the API of a specific service (Facebook, Google), or simply on a general topic (open government, accessibility, etc.).

Some hackathons also do away with set themes, and the development teams can then let their creativity run completely free. Participants are usually software developers – primarily (but by no means exclusively) programmers. Many well-known hackathons are also aimed specifically at students or those starting their careers. These conferences can also be a springboard for students and new programmers in particular. Big names from the IT industry are often present at these events, who are interested in discovering new talent.

There are other reasons for developers to participate in a hackathon. The possibility of networking with other specialists should not be underestimated, as well as exchanging knowledge. Furthermore, projects launched during a hackathon can mark the beginning of a long-term cooperation between team members, or other developers.

Last but not least, some organisers offer prizes – many hackathons are designed as competitions. At these events, a jury selects one or more winners after a presentation of the individual projects. The prizes may include smaller non-cash prizes, but cash prizes of several hundred thousand dollars are also often offered. Most hackathons do not charge a participation fee. This is due to the fact that many of these programming events originated from the open source scene, or at least feel committed to it, and are often targeted at students.


Hackathons are closely related to software development, but these kind of events happen for other experts, too, such as for designers, bicycle mechanics, and hardware developers.

What happens at a hackathon?

There are so many different hackathons, and all of them are characterised differently. Depending on the topic, duration, and size of the event, what happens and when changes between events. Nevertheless, there are some elements which stay the same.

  • Presentation: Almost every hackathon starts with an opening presentation by the organisers to give an overview of the event. Generally speaking, the main themes of the hackathon are introduced, as well as the schedule for the whole event.
  • Lectures: Some hackathons offer not only the possibility for joint application development, but also typical conference elements – such as lectures or workshops. These are mostly topics that fit the main theme of the event, and offer a wealth of information on it.
  • Pitch: After the theme has been announced, participants have the opportunity to suggest suitable project ideas to work on with others.
  • Team building: Usually the teams are not set up in advance, but are project-oriented and formed relatively spontaneously on site. The teams should aim to be as diverse as possible – a team with people with different expertise and from various backgrounds are more likely to have a project that progresses quicker.
  • Development work: After the team has been put together, the actual work begins. Together teams work out their initial idea, then collect possible solution strategies. It is rare that the projects are completely finished within the time period – that is not the aim of a hackathon. It is instead about finding creative solutions and exchanging ideas.
  • Sleeping & eating: At many events, food and sleep are put on the back burner – there isn’t much time for it. Quick snacks here and there, and short nights in sleeping bags are what can be expected. Of course, this does not necessarily have to be the case, with some event organisers also offering healthy catering, and a helping hand in searching for overnight accommodation.
  • Presentation: Especially at longer events there are often presentations to break up the schedule, which inform participants about the current status of the projects and highlight challenges. This may also be an opportunity to seek advice from other participants. At the end of the hackathon all participants give a presentation. This is not about a finished product, but more importantly, ideas on solving any issues or problems, and a concept to bring the project to a satisfactory conclusion.
  • Award ceremony: If a hackathon is competitive, the event ends with an award ceremony. Previously, the jury (usually consisting of organisers, prominent experts, or selected company representatives) have taken pictures of the projects at the presentations and subsequently selected one or more winners – often the participants can apply for different categories with their projects. Depending on the event, the teams can win prize money or non-cash prizes.

Hackathons across the UK

Hackathons now exist almost all over the world – and there’s a variety of events all across the UK. New events are added every year. Here is a small selection of hackathons that are definitely worth a visit. Some of the events listed below may not be annual, but all seem to aim to run annually. Check their websites to see when they will next be on!



Branded as London Tech Week’s headline event, the HackXLR8 hackathon, started in 2017 and has whopping exposure due to the attendance of around 15,000 visitors. It is a two day hackathon, with interesting prizes to be won.


ExCel London, One Western Gateway, Royal Victoria Dock, London E16 1XL.

Extra information:

  • The theme for 2017 was smart technology, with the subcategories smart home, smart city, smart transport.
  • The themes for 2018 are the Internet of Things (IoT), smart mobility and GreenTech.

Doper Elves Hackathon: Augmenting the human experience – learn, build, open source


This weekend long hackathon starts with talks and an introduction from good speakers from the industry, and then goes on for two intense days of hacking. There are no cash prizes for the Doper Elves’ hackathon but taking part in this hackathon provides good exposure, and the opportunity to network. The code used is open source.


The Gallery, Tileyard Road, London N7 9AH

Extra information:

  • The event was developed by two engineers who organise events for software engineers, and computer scientists, as well as designers and creatives. They are both CTO’s of London based start-ups.
  • The hackathon is focused on creating real solutions for people and having a meaningful impact on the world




The Hack24 hackathon runs over a weekend, and is organised by TechNottingham. There is food and entertainment provided (if you dare to take a break), and even an after party.


Nottingham City Council, Council House, Old Market Square, Nottingham NG1 2DT

Extra Information:

  • There was a live stream of the event in early 2018, so if you cannot make it you’ll still be able to tune in! Furthermore, if you cannot attend as a participant, volunteers are needed very year, which means you can network and join in.
  • The 2018 prizes included Amazon Echo devices, Raspberry Pi 3s, Bluetooth keyboards, and other gadgets.

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