How to Mentor at a Student Hackathon & Why You Should Give it a Try

Mentoring student hackathons is one of the best ways to have a direct impact on your local tech community. Hackathons are essentially invention/creation marathons that focus on building small software or hardware projects.

I’ve been mentoring and attending hackathons for over two years now, and they’re consistently among the most enjoyable experiences in my life. I’ve enjoyed this activity so much that I spend my weekends helping out as a coach for Major League Hacking.

How? Jump Right In

I’ll talk later about how to find mentorship opportunities, but we’ll start off by discussing how to help once you’re at an event. The first time you mentor, you might be unsure what of to do. In my experience, one of the easiest ways is to approach teams.

Look for a group of students actively talking about their project. Ask them what they’re building, what tech stack they’re using, or what problems they’re encountering. The third question isn’t needed too often; most projects are facing some sort of challenge at any given moment.

If the students aren’t sure what they’re building yet, this can be a good time to help them brainstorm a project. I think it can be important to help them refine their thoughts to a simple idea here. It feels better to have something small working at the end than something big that’s in shambles. Remind them that they can add the more complicated features after they get something working.

When you ask the students what tech they’re using, you’ll get a few opportunities to help them and learn some yourself. More likely than not, you’ll pick up or hear about some new technology, a fresh application of a technology, or even an arrangement of technologies. Depending on your experience with their tech stack, you might get a chance to recommend some options for technology or offer advice around some of the speedbumps.

After you’ve been in a conversation with a hackathon group for more than a little while, you’ll probably hear about some sort of problem they’re having with implementing their project. This is a great time to discuss the problem and maybe even jump in and help them debug it.

Speaking of timing, it’s important to consider when you approach a team. The first day after the first meal is typically a great time. On the other hand, it’s not so great to show up at/around nighttime any time after the first night. Hackers will typically be very tired at this point, or asleep.

Whenever you’re mentoring, make sure to read the group and avoid overstepping your bounds. It’s up to the attendees to decide how they want help, not you. If you feel like you’re making the hackers uncomfortable, that’s a good enough reason to step away and give them their space. As much help as you think you can give, you’re not going to help any of the attendees if you make them uncomfortable enough to leave.

Why Be a Mentor?

I think everyone who hasn’t been to a student hacakthon should go. The reasons to mentor are obvious once you’ve been to one event, but I’ll outline some of them here to inspire you to attend.

The most straightforward reason to mentor a hackathon is to help people learn. As a professional software developer, you will likely have more than enough experience to help in a lot of ways, and your experience will help attendees avoid a lot of speedbumps and blockers.

I’m sure you’re familiar with getting stuck on some small aspect of a problem for an unreasonable amount of time. When you eventually ask for help from someone, they often show you a different perspective and solve your problem in moments.

Mentoring at hackathons can also provide a low-pressure environment where you can practice some of your skills, especially debugging, brainstorming, mentoring (duh), and interacting with strangers.

It’s also an opportunity to embrace unfamiliar and different technologies. Keep in mind that there a lot of approaches to problems that aren’t the same as what you would choose, so keep an open mind and don’t shame people for the choices they make. You don’t want to scare them off from the community.

Need even more reasons to show up? Your presence demonstrates a larger and growing community, which feeds back into helping the community grow. Going to these events also exposes you to a lot of interesting projects made by motivated students. Finally, as a small point, you’ll probably get some free food out of the experience!

How Can You Get Involved?

There are a lot of resources for finding hackathons on the internet, but  MLH (Major League Hacking) hosts a ton of events in North America and the European Union during the academic year and can be a great resource for finding hackathons. Most hackathons have a Slack or other communication channel, and these channels often have a mentors section where hackers can make specific requests about what they need.

You can look for events in your area, and many events have explicit opportunities for mentorship. Even if they don’t, you can contact the organizers and ask if they need help with mentorship.

I hope this post inspires you to mentor at a local hackathon, and now you know what to expect from the experience.