Turn hackathons into a powerful career advantage!

Your number one goal when stepping out into the job-seeking world is to stand out from the crowd of other job seekers. This is true whether you're just starting your career or have a ton of experience to back you up. In fact, because of the competitiveness out there, being innovative in your quest to secure your dream job has never been more important. Hackathons can be your friend in the endeavour to move up the career ladder. 

The concept of a hackathon is quite compelling. But what is a hackathon? Well, you're about to learn everything you need to know, including how to leverage your experience with them to propel your career forward. 

Hackathon: meaning, origins and purpose

Are you one of those types of people who love to solve problems? Is your zen found sitting behind a computer coding new programs? Those passions can be used like a secret weapon to unlock a world of career opportunities. Let's dive deeper into how hackathons can do that for you.

What is a hackathon?

Simply put, a hackathon is an event where people come together for a short, specified time to solve a complex problem or come up with a new way to do something. The event itself lasts between 24 and 72 hours and is an intense, focused effort to brainstorm, design, prototype, and code new solutions to real-world problems. 

When you dissect the word “hackathon,” you end up with a fusion of  “hack” and “marathon.” Don't let the inclusion of the word “hack” worry you. It doesn't mean something malicious, but rather something creative and ingenious – using unconventional and resourceful means to get to efficient solutions. When you think of the word “marathon,” you may think of runners exerting maximum effort and focus to compete in a race. Since hackathons are time-bound events, they demand a similar level of effort and concentration as a marathon. 

The origins of hackathons

As you can imagine, the concept of hackathons finds its roots in the tech world. The first hackathon was two decades ago and was called the OpenBSD Hackathon. It brought together Programmers, Developers, and Engineers to collaborate on coding projects. Since then, hackathons have expanded to include pretty much every field, including healthcare, education, business, and even social causes. They are now global phenomena that attract experts from diverse backgrounds and industries. 

The main purpose of hackathons

One of the things most critical in writing a new CV for a job search is to include a balanced mix of hard and soft skills. You'll find, in some instances, that hiring managers value soft skills over hard skills, because hard skills can be taught more easily than soft skills. When you start to extol achievements from your career that were supported by soft skills, your participation in, and knowledge of, hackathons can be truly helpful. 

The main purpose of a hackathon is to foster innovation, creativity, and problem-solving, which are all major players in the world of soft skills. From a career perspective, hackathons provide you with the following advantages:

  • Showcase soft skills: Hackathon events give you an opportunity to apply those soft skills and unique perspectives to demonstrate your ability to think outside the box and your commitment to excellence in finding practical solutions to difficult problems.
  • Increase your network: Since one of the tenets of a hackathon is to work collaboratively with people from diverse backgrounds, you'll have the opportunity to connect with like-minded professionals, mentors, and prospective employers. 
  • Learn and grow: As we've mentioned, hackathons are all about tackling challenging issues. Doing so gives you valuable experience and results-driven accomplishments that you can highlight in your CV. 

Can anyone participate in a hackathon?

Now that you know what a hackathon is, let's talk about who can participate in one. The short answer is, “Anyone!” Hackathons are incredibly inclusive, welcoming participants of diverse backgrounds, industries, geographies, and experience levels. 


It could be said that hackathons thrive on diversity. The idea is that when you bring people of varying expertise and talents together in a dynamic environment, you achieve a level of collaboration and an open exchange of ideas that promotes success. This lends itself well to the notion that everyone has a place in the hackathon community, because teams benefit from a mix of skills. If you're a newbie, you'll bring a fresh perspective that can be the key to groundbreaking solutions. If you're passionate and determined, there's a place for you in a hackathon.

Can beginners do a hackathon?

You're a fresher with no experience? No big deal. You have knowledge gained from earning your degree, so use it at a hackathon. The beauty of working on a hackathon as a recent graduate is that you get to hobnob with other experts and quickly expand on the knowledge you've gained at university.One of the hurdles that someone with little to no experience has to overcome is the fact that they have little to no experience. Being able to tell future employers that some of your career experience and achievements come from participating in hackathons where you “Collaborated with people on a global scale to solve ABC problem, to bring XYZ product to market and secure new revenue of £123M annually” will really help you stand out in the sea of job seekers.

You don't know how to code?

Many people ask, “do hackathons require coding skills?” Because of the inclusivity of hackathons, lacking the ability to code isn't a deal breaker. Yes, coding is a significant component of many hackathons, but it's not a universal requirement since hackathons come in different flavours. Some hackathons require coding because the company wants new software developed, while other hackathons seek Designers, Marketers, and Project Managers to improve customer outreach, branding tactics, or operational strategies.If you don't know how to code, then all you have to do is seek out hackathons that have roles other than those that require coding. It's the same way you'd look for a new job – by finding one that fits your experience, skills, and qualifications.

5 tips for hackathon success

Once you find the right hackathon for your knowledge and skill level, you have to prepare yourself with some strategies – like how to survive a 24-hour hackathon. Remember, your hackathon experience can be leveraged for professional growth and career advancement, so treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

1. Refine your objectives

We already mentioned picking the right hackathon for your skills - don't choose a coding one if you can't code. Above and beyond that, take some time to consider what specific skills you want to develop, the kind of project you aim to create, or the industry connections you hope to make. By clarifying your goals, you'll ensure that your participation is purpose-driven, setting the stage for a rewarding experience and meaningful career development.

2. Build a diverse team

Since collaboration is key to hackathon success, you must assemble or join a team with a diverse skill set that complements yours. Keep in mind that multifaceted challenges require a multifaceted approach, so your team needs to have different backgrounds, expertise, and experiences to create a breeding ground for innovation. Moreover, diversity gives you the opportunity to learn from the best and expand your knowledge into areas outside your expertise.

3. Time management

Since some hackathons can be an intense 24-hour sprint, it's crucial to adapt your time management strategies accordingly because maintaining stamina is essential for success. If you're participating in one of these endurance hackathons, allocate time for rest and short breaks to maintain focus and productivity. 

4. Stay open to learning

Since one of your goals in participating in a hackathon is to achieve career growth, you should approach it with a growth mindset. Dive into learning new technologies, tools, and methodologies to gain valuable skills that you can use to advance your career.

5. Keep records

It's important to document your experience and achievements, so that you can relay those details to prospective employers who will be keenly interested in what you'll bring to the table. By keeping a record of your hackathon journey, including challenges faced and solutions developed, you can build achievement statements and compelling anecdotes for your CV that will impress hiring managers. This is where the use of the STAR method will help you – describe what problem the hackathon was trying to solve, discuss what you did about it, and talk about how your problem-solving abilities were instrumental in helping the team to achieve a solution. 

Some hackathon success stories

They say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Well, here are some real-life success stories from the 2023 SAS Hackathon, where people who participated harnessed their experience and achievements to transform their career trajectories. 

1. Groundbreaking flood control

Hackathon experience: Team JaWaRA from Jakarta, Indonesia, won the hackathon by addressing persistent flooding issues caused by climate change.

Success story: The team, consisting of government Data Scientists, Engineers, and experts from StarCore Analytics, used SAS AI, machine learning, and IoT analytics during the hackathon to create an early warning system that predicted and prevented flooding. This innovative solution became a vital component of Jakarta's citywide flood control system.

Impact on career: Team JaWaRA's hackathon victory not only made headlines, but also showcased their expertise in data analytics and flood prediction. This recognition led to career advancements for team members and demonstrated how hackathon experiences can contribute to addressing real-world challenges.

2. Sustainable investments

Hackathon experience: A team from Santander Bank participated in the hackathon with a focus on sustainable finance.

Success story: The team used SAS Viya and machine learning capabilities to develop an online carbon footprint tracker that works alongside banking transactions and allows consumers to monitor the environmental impact of their purchases in real-time to align their investments with sustainability goals.

Impact on career: This project's success not only demonstrated the team's technical skills, but also their ability to create solutions with a positive impact. Team members who participated in the hackathon were recognised for innovation and found themselves leading sustainability-focused initiatives within their organisation.

3. Revolutionising disaster response

Hackathon experience: A team from EPAM and Linktera4Good, based in Turkey, joined the hackathon with a focus on disaster response and the fast delivery of vital information even when chaos ensues.

Success story: Using SAS Viya and open-source tools, the team created a decision-support model to provide quick and reliable information during disasters like earthquakes. The model combined social media data with satellite imagery and enabled governments, rescue teams, and NGOs to allocate resources and respond to emergencies without having to guess about what's going on.

Impact on career: This hackathon project showcased the team's ability to leverage data analytics for humanitarian purposes. Their success in developing this disaster response tool led to further collaborations with organisations involved in disaster relief efforts, solidifying their expertise in this critical field.

Winning the competition

The goal of any hackathon is to win the competition, find a solution to the problem, and become known as an innovator. On the other hand, leaning on the phrase winning isn't everything, a hackathon also opens a portal to career opportunities that may not have otherwise been present – whether you win or not. By capitalising on the skills, knowledge, and experience you gain, your professional future will be brighter than ever!

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