Journey to McHacks: People You Might Meet at a Hackathon

I’ll be honest. I’ve heard lots about hackathons, and listened to countless tales from friends who’ve gone. But enough to count myself as a fine connoisseur? Not quite. Full disclosure: Never have I set foot in a hackathon before. So, naturally, the whole McHacks journey has been a learning experience for me. The organizing team has graciously answered a lot of the questions that I had, especially when it came to who exactly participates in hackathons. So, I thought, why not share some of my findings with the curious and first-timers out there.

If you’re thinking about joining a hackathon, but wanted to have a better idea of what to expect, here’s a look into the kind of people who attend hackathons and who you might meet.

Team McHacks

On Hack Day, you can expect to have the whole team on deck! Throughout the day, you’ll most likely run into key McHacks individuals who have helped organize the event, whether it be on the sponsorship or logistics side of things. The team comes from various backgrounds, including (but not limited to) computer science – an obvious given, biochemistry, and political science. Don’t hesitate to chat them up if you spot them – they’ll be more than happy to answer any questions you may have during the hackathon!

The Participants

I know what you’re actually dying to know: Who the heck am I going to hack with?

The team generously shared their internal data, and sent over some of their graphics to help me visually and statistically describe the hackathon landscape.

1 – Geographical areas

This year, McHacks anticipates around 600 participants, many of which come from Montreal, and more precisely from McGill – but not necessarily by choice. The team wants to cover a good geographic area, and tries not to focus so much on Montreal. They do their best to facilitate as many out of town hackers as possible, but it’s not always easily feasible. It just all comes down to a matter of how much money they can raise and how much of the budget can be spent on travel.

A couple of years ago, when McHacks just started, the team had a tendency to prioritize Canadian schools. Back then, hackathons weren’t as accessible as they are now for Canadian students. The States held a staggering higher number of options for hackathon aficionados while they were rather scarce for Canadians. Tough life, eh? Now, there are a lot more hackathons available but they still want to make sure that people who can’t usually attend them can attend McHacks.

McHacks received 2,000 registrations this year. They need to make sure that there’s a decent number of students coming from each school to set up proper accommodations. This means that though they want to, they can’t accept everybody. The team will typically pick people from schools in neighboring areas that have the most signups since that’ll help them better coordinate other details like transportation.

That’s not to say that McHacks only limit themselves to Canadian schools that are close by. They also accept people from very far away if they can make it here themselves without requiring reimbursements. For example, they can’t facilitate buses from Vancouver, but if someone can travel to McHacks on their own account, then there’s a large chance that they’ll receive an acceptance letter. Last year, someone applied from Russia, and asked if their flight can be refunded. Unfortunately, but understandably so, that wasn’t a possibility.

2 – Skill levels

For the most part, this year’s edition will welcome new hackers who have never attended McHacks before. But that doesn’t mean that everyone has the same skill set. People from all programming levels come to hackathons, so fret not, you’ll never find yourself stranded and singled out.

There are complete beginners who have just taken their first programming course, and even those who don’t know much about coding at all. They usually attend hackathons to learn, try new things, and sharpen their technical skills.

Then come the people who possess a mid-level skill set, a range within which most of the hackers in attendance fall. They’re usually 2nd or 3rd year university students who might have done a few academic Computer Science classes, but who have yet to gain a lot of technical and practical programming experience. They’re also looking to learn, but more specifically to become more familiar with the different tools that people working in the industry use.

Finally, there are those crazy good hackers who will build something completely insane during the hackathon. They’re the ones whose projects sometimes take off and end up igniting new startup ideas.

3 – Fields of study

Adding to the diversity of this roundup, participating hackers majored in different fields with a fair number of them not coming from a Computer Science background. Actually, a lot of them decide to switch into the program after the hackathon. Basically, you can expect to hack alongside people from other majors who simply enjoy programming on the side. A non-exhaustive list of students interested in McHacks include those with a background in Biology (quite a few actually), Engineering, Sports Studies, Urban Planning, Arts (Economics and Psychology, to be more precise), Philosophy, Accounting, and Business (which makes sense since they’re the most likely to have startup ideas that they want to test drive).

4 – Female-to-male ratio

Sad and non-encouraging at it is, McHacks’ female-to-male ratio (which stands in at 1:4) is actually quite representative of that of Computer Science students, or as some may put it: quite bad. As it is the case for many hackathons, women only make up a tiny portion of hackathon participants. That may be partly due to the logistics and accommodations of a hackathon. Being in one building for 24 hours without necessarily having guaranteed access to privacy and showers can be a huge deterrent. But the team, and the industry as a whole I surely hope, is working towards creating a better and more inclusive environment for all.

Team Formation

Now what you have a better idea of who you might be rubbing shoulders with, it’s time to start forming teams.

The way it works for team formation is that you’ll be sent to a room specifically chosen for that purpose where you can mingle, meet other participants and see what projects others are working on. This is the perfect opportunity for people who came solo to socialize and get acquainted. Everybody can just go around, pitch their ideas and subsequently form teams. McHacks wanted to create a favorable environment for those who want to hack but didn’t necessarily have a team to begin with.

For the most part, teams are well balanced, and decisions aren’t really influenced by which major you’re in. People hardly know what you’re studying unless they expressly ask for it. Participants usually just end up joining a team if the team accepts them. Has anyone ever been rejected? Rarely – unless the team is full (the maximum threshold is 4 members per project). Generally, most hackers are really friendly, open to meeting new people, and very welcoming even to those who don’t know how to program. People like to help each other out. And if someone is an expert at something, then it’s usually a good place to get peer mentoring.

For those who prefer working individually? Not a problem! There aren’t really any restrictions aside from that 4-member rule. Though encouraged to join a group, anybody can also just go ahead and form their own 1-person team.

So there you have it, a comprehensive profile of who you might expect to meet at McHacks this year. From participants to sponsors, we can all agree that every single person in attendance share one thing in common: they’re all very passionate about technology. People may come from various backgrounds and work on different types of projects, but what ultimately brings them to McHacks is their equal and unwavering love for all things tech-related.

Next up, we have all the details of how the team organize their sponsorships, from redesigning their sponsorship package to getting a hold of key contacts at small and big companies. Stay tuned for that!