When taken as a hole a hackathon is a marketing, networking, and possibly hiring event. Engineers and developers of all levels attend with the award of getting to demo a cool / neat / fresh solution to (generally) an age old problem. Hackathon’s do not exemplify the planning, fitment, trial and error, depth of knowledge, or thoroughness of execution. If you want shake hands and rub elbows, defiantly attend. If you want to demonstrate your ability at a specific technology, attend. If you want to actually solve the problem, pass. If you want to win, read on.
To win a hackathon contest your team will need three main things to stand a chance. 1) Get a public speaker on your team. This person should spend the entire time planning, practicing, and refining the pitch/demo. You will have a very limited amount of time to convence 1 to dozens of NON-technical people why you (possible) solution is THE best. One chance, make it count. It MUST be the best anyone has seen. 2) Have a technical wow factor; the more it looks like magic the better. Voice commands, robotics, haptic feedback, AR, VR, machine learning, computer vision. Or any other ‘WOW’ factor. Simply making a web app will not get you into the semi-finals. (For example; MongoDB + NodeJs + Bootstrap + Google Maps). And finally 3) if you have item 1 and 2 covered; then, and only then, should you attempt to solve the challenge. The solution does not have to actually work, just look like it could. Your selling the idea, not the actual implimentation the majority of the time.
The hackathon/s I have attended where fun and defiantly an interesting experience. But I’m to old to survive on 3 hours a sleep day after day. Giving up entire weekends, sleeping on couches, eating take-out every meal, sitting in front of a screen for 18+ hours for days on end is not fun to me anymore. Sure I do software for a paycheck, I am not at the keys more than I need to be. Solving problems takes thinking, lots of thinking; planning, then execution. Hackathon flip this backwards and put the participants under pressure to perform.
TL;DR: Attend a hackathon at least once and see if it is your type of event. For me though; I am to old for programing benders anymore; the body just cant hang with the 20 somethings.