What to Expect at Your First Virtual Hackathon

4 min readJan 17, 2021


Imagine the adventure that awaits inside your computer during this (virtual) hackathon season!

Imagine this: you log on to your computer and see hundreds of people greeting each other in a group chat. The person you’ve always wanted to see speak at an event is being livestreamed right in front of you! You’re getting into fun conversations on Slack and deciding which crazy software idea you want bring to life in one weekend. And you never even have to get up off a chair to make this happen.

What are you up to? A virtual hackathon opening ceremony!

While the world might have changed substantially in the last year, hackathon organizers — especially those at AthenaHacks — are doing everything they can to make sure that students can attend memorable, fun-filled events in a safe way. If you’re a first-timer at a hackathon, read on to find out what a virtual hackathon looks like, what you can be excited to get out of it, what to do if you’re a beginner programmer, and what we look for in AthenaHacks hacker applications.

The Walkthrough for a First-Timer

An in-person hackathon would look like this: after a trip via bus/car/plane from your school to the host school, you’ll line up at a registration table where you can receive swag and a warm welcome from the organizers! Then, you’ll follow signs from the registration table to the location for the opening ceremony, where you’ll watch an inspiring keynote speaker and representatives from companies talk about their software product or internship program.

Then, for the next 24–48 hours, you’ll get your team together, plan and start coding a project (as small or wild as you want it to be!), attend technical and professional workshops you’re interested in, stack cups competitively, eat all the free meals and snacks, take a nap, meet other students, and get ready to demonstrate what you’ve built at the end of the time. Not necessarily in that order every time, but you get the gist.

A virtual hackathon contains all the same elements, just presented differently.

  • You’ll be on platforms like Google Meet, Teams, or Zoom to meet up with team members or attend a presentation.
  • You’ll ask mentors for help in a Slack or Discord channel.
  • You’ll have a dedicated space to socialize and meet other hackers in “general”, “fun”, or “random” channels.
  • You’ll receive a fun package in the mail with all of your hackathon swag!

What You’ll Get Out of the Hackathon

  1. Technology skills. In one weekend, you could be exposed to a range of skills and new challenges: how to use version control, how to use a new API, how to set up a database, how to search through documentation to fix an obscure bug, or how to teach yourself a whole new programming language. If you’ve ever felt unsure about some of tech’s vocabulary (does anyone really know what the cloud is?), this is your chance to dive in headfirst and get some expert help along the way!
  2. Entrepreneurial experience. People often say that start-up founders wear a lot of hats, but they never say that the same can be said of hackathon attendees! To make your project successful, you’ll find yourself interviewing fellow students like a customer researcher, brainstorming features like a product manager, browsing color palettes like a designer, or giving a charming elevator pitch like a founder.
  3. New friends! Through organizer or MLH-planned events, breakout rooms with a mentor, or the team you’re working with, you’ll come across people from different backgrounds but the same interest in building new tech. You could meet your future best friend or cofounders at a hackathon!

But what if I’ve never coded before?

No problem; most student-run hackathons, and AthenaHacks in particular, pride themselves on being beginner-friendly and may even have a prize for the best beginner’s project. The following resources will be available:

  • Slack or Discord channels with student mentors or volunteers with tech experience
  • Company representatives who can answer technical questions related to their software product
  • Workshops on everything from building your first website to getting the hang of machine learning
  • Hackathon organizers who can point you towards the resources that are right for you

Fun fact: many of AthenaHacks’ organizers themselves figured out how to build software at their first hackathon!

How AthenaHacks Chooses Applicants

Well, what was your SAT score?

. . . just kidding! AthenaHacks organizers really only look for two things:

  • You identify as a woman, femme, or non-binary
  • Your application statement shows that you’re passionate about technology and AthenaHacks’ mission to close the gender gap in hackathon attendance!

Just in case it wasn’t clear before: you do not need to have coding experience to be accepted. We accept and celebrate all students who are excited to learn about technology.

So — get excited to have fun at a virtual hackathon! And happy hacking!

Anything else?

Always feel free to come to our organizers with questions or suggestions for improvement at athenahacks@gmail.com or on Instagram @athena_hacks. And follow event updates on our Facebook event page!




Southern California's premiere hackathon for marginalized gender identities