Published: April 21, 2021 By

Hackathons give students a chance to explore and network, all in a fun atmosphere.

 It’s essentially an invention marathon. Twelve to 36 hours of building and connecting with other developers. 

Zahraa Abbasi

Zahraa Abbasi
Director of HackCU

The term “hackathon” might elicit images of people breaking into CIA mainframes, but the reality of these events is more like an all-night academic conference, networking event, and party all rolled into one. 

“It’s essentially an invention marathon,’’ said junior computer science major Zahraa Abbasi, director of HackCU, CU Boulder’s largest hackathon. “Twelve to 36 hours of building and connecting with other developers.”

Most events focus on using technology to solve problems. At HackCU’s 2019 event, for example, participants could choose from different tracks, including health care, virtual solutions, education and, social justice. Students worked in teams to identify a problem in a selected field and then design and prototype solutions.

Projects run the gamut from video games and software that compares car accidents caused by weather versus distracted driving, to emergency multipoint Wi-Fi systems for use during disasters when other wireless communication systems fail.

As a student, Cassandra Goodby (TAM’18, MTechMedSoc’20) was the lead organizer for T9Hacks, a hackathon for women and nonbinary students. She said hackathons offer a chance to explore.

“I love user-experience design, and T9Hacks was my first opportunity to work on wireframes that led me into the field,” Goodby said. “Hackathons are a way to look into something you’re interested in versus a class or job where you have specific, regular assignments.”

They’re also an excellent way for students to build a professional network for jobs and internships. Events typically have business sponsors who hold educational workshops, host tech challenges and provide ever-important snacks.

“Hackathons show you’re passionate about technology and the field, and it gives you a portfolio piece you can show employers,” Goodby said. “One of my friends got an internship through T9Hacks, and a lot of people find mentors.”

T9Hacks typically draws more than 125 people, while HackCU can attract as many as 700 attendees.

“People really love these events. They’re always excited to come,” Abbasi said. “It’s not just CU Boulder. We draw people from all over Colorado. A couple of years ago we even had attendees from Canada and Spain.”

The length of these events can vary, but 24 hours is common.

“We’ve had a couple of shorter 12-hour hackathons. You can learn a lot, but you’re not really developing a project,” Abbasi said. “It’s just more fun with a full event. The sleep deprivation and antics add to the experience.”

Although attendees face real deadlines, fun is the order of the day (and night). 

“It’s a time to explore technology. T9Hacks was the first big event I went to on campus,” Goodby said. “It was 24 hours to build and connect. I knew I was in the right place.”