How participating in hackathons helped prepare me for my first job

by Thomas So on Apr 1, 2016

tvOS Hackathon fast-approaching (only a couple weeks away, on April 16 in our San Francisco offices!), I’ve found myself reflecting on the many hackathons I’ve participated in over the years. Looking back, I can see how engaging with the hackathon culture helped prepare me for my work as an engineer at AppLovin — my first job out of college.

Here’s why I think participating in hackathons can help prepare anyone for their first job as an engineer:

You pick up valuable new programming skills. This might seem like stating the obvious, but truly, there is nothing like a hackathon to spur you to quickly learn valuable new skills. For example, my first introduction to Apple’s programming language Swift was at a hackathon. A few months later, my first day on the job at AppLovin, I had to dive into a project written 100 percent in Swift, and I was so grateful to have had such great exposure to it earlier.

While not everything I’ve picked up at hackathons has directly informed my work at AppLovin, I’ve always come away from hackathons feeling just a little smarter, and just a little bit better prepared for problem-solving, because of the new APIs or skills I’ve picked up — and that helps me with my work every day.

You learn how to be adaptable. One of the key skills you cultivate by participating in hackathons is how to go with the flow. You might go into a hackathon with a particular idea about what you want to do, but then realize once you’re there that you should move in another direction. For example, last summer I went to a book tech hackathon with a team that was already formed, and we had planned to build an app that would track users’ progress reading books. But once we got the to the hackathon and surveyed the attendees, we realized an app like that didn’t have as much appeal as we anticipated. So we immediately switched gears and built an app that encouraged the habit of reading in general. (Read all about that mid-hackathon pivot here.)  

That experience helped prepare me for working at a tech startup, and now that my career has launched, I know that being flexible on the job is always important. For example, at AppLovin, we have to build SDKs that are flexible to meet the needs of our partners, so changing business needs continually drive how we actually build. As engineers in this industry, we always have to change things on the fly — that’s just how things work — and I’m glad I learned how to shift gears quickly before I got my first job.

You learn about bonding and teamwork. At hackathons, there are often people of varying ages, backgrounds, skill level, and seniority, all of whom are united by a passion for tech. When you jump in on a project together with people whom you’ve only just met, and you have limited time together to get it done, you bond surprisingly quickly, and you learn how to cooperate quickly. (I actually met the group I built the reading app I mentioned above at another hackathon earlier — we stayed in touch and continued to build together.)  

My experience with teamwork at hackathons undoubtedly prepared me for the working world: At AppLovin, the engineers form a close-knit team that executes on tight deadlines. We are accustomed to working hard together, and we fully recognize that our output is the product of collaboration. Individuals don’t dominate because our work fits together.

There are often recruiters at hackathons, and that fact alone can help you land a job if you shine during an event. But I think if you’re just starting out in your career, it’s important to think of hackathons as job-readiness training. My experience at hackathons prepared me like nothing else for the fast pace of the tech world, and for the intense collaboration that working in it requires. I’m looking forward to stopping by AppLovin’s tvOS Hackathon in a few weeks to soak up the atmosphere, revisit that amazing atmosphere of learning, and mentor participants. If you register, I’ll see you there!

Thomas So is a software engineer at AppLovin.