It's Not Just About The Tech: How Hackathons Foster People Skills In Its Participants

The purpose of a hackathon is not merely about winning, but about being part of a collaborative experience.

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When I came to New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) in 2010 to set up the computer science department, I worried that my students would be isolated from extra-curricular activities outside the university. At that time, there were no hackathons or similar activities in the region, which informed my decision to start a hackathon in 2011. I wanted to change the culture of academic hackathons in general, to make them more inclusive, collaborative, and to provide students with the valuable tools that are necessary for their development.

Over the ensuing 10 years, I have gained some valuable insights into the skills that our students must learn. So, even though the main focus of the hackathon is to develop vital technical skills, including quantum computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing, it is equally important to also develop "people" skills that they will need in the workplace.

Working against the clock, students must communicate with each other to make sure they are on the same page, and working as efficiently as possible. As with any team project, everyone will have different ideas of how to progress, so the real challenge is to agree on a method, and then work together to execute the plan. This means being aware of how the team is functioning at all points in the process, and helping each other at every step of the way. Every member will have a unique skill, and the key is to quickly identify these strengths, and be aware of how they can help their co-workers prosper. Ultimately, it is the team that wins, rather than any individual.

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Awareness and collaboration are not just "nice to have" skills. A talented computer engineering student will likely join a big tech company or dynamic startup where they will be expected to work in a diverse team, delivering world-class ideas. This requires confidence and highly developed social skills. People working together is at the heart of computer science even more generally. The world's best programming languages are open source, which exist thanks to a community of collaboration and support– an ethos that has been the basis for most groundbreaking innovations.

It's also vital for students to work on their presentation skills, which will make or break the hard work formulating a good idea. Although our hackathon participants spend 48 hours immersed in the details of their idea, they must be able to then zoom out to focus on the bigger picture, making sure that they have a story to sell. And when it comes to presentations, practice is everything. It's impossible to be overprepared for this exercise.

To reiterate, the purpose of an event such as a hackathon is not merely about winning, but about being part of a collaborative experience. Collaboration across borders, intersectional diversity of teams, and teamwork are all vital to career progression and developing meaningful products that can help change the world. If the early stage of education is about learning the hard technical skills needed for computer science, any subsequent career requires a much broader palette of skills.

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