By Katelyn Squiers, innovationIOWA contributor

Hackathons aimed toward college and high school students have recently taken root again within Iowa, helping several students develop rapid problem-solving skills and experience the freedom to build creatively. 

A hackathon is an event where teams of people come together to develop a solution to a problem, typically in the form of functioning software. They take place within a specific and brief window of time, such as 24 or 48 hours. 

“Hackathons are like this mini snowglobe version of doing something in the real world without a lot of consequences,” said Armaan Gupta, a recent Iowa State University graduate who studied management information systems. “It gives folks this opportunity to spend two days being children and imagining cool things, because sometimes you get so in your routine that you forget to just imagine, and think, and be free.” 

As the CEO of Kreative Horizon, the company that launched the Hack Iowa State and the Build DSM competition series, Gupta has helped pave the way to increase the number of hackathons in the Ames and Des Moines area. 

Gupta said hackathons had a presence in the Iowa area prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but by the time he arrived at Iowa State’s campus in fall 2020, the events had become inactive. 

Gupta’s interest in hackathons began in high school when he first attended one in Chicago. 

“[My first hackathon] was honestly a life-changing experience because here I was with a couple of my buddies, and we got so much done,” Gupta said. “I saw so many high schoolers get so much done in 24 hours. After that, I decided this is what I want to do for a very, very long time.” 

At the end of a hackathon, teams provide a brief presentation of their results to their peers. In many cases, if the hackathon is competitive, there will also be a panel of judges to provide a score with feedback. 

Organizers will also often host workshops throughout their event, which can include lessons on creating a pitch deck, delivering a presentation, or introducing skills such as machine learning and web development. 

Garritt Grandberg, vice president of technology and engineering at Visionary, has participated as a judge for two of the hackathons hosted by Kreative Horizon. He applauds hackathons for their ability to teach problem-solving skills and provide real-world experiences. 

“The core foundation of everything is problem-solving, the most important thing and probably the hardest thing to teach,” Grandberg said. “Classroom experience is great, but you need to be exposed to
real-world problems that internships and hackathons give you.”

Jack Messerli, a junior studying physics, computer science and math at Drake University, attended the Build DSM V1 hackathon on Feb. 17, which asked participants to build an application under the topic of veterinary technology. 

Within 48 hours, Messerli and his three teammates developed an application called Fishy Solutions to help people diagnose and treat their goldfish. 

Messerli said they encountered unexpected challenges while fleshing out their idea, which included delegating their tasks in an efficient manner to maximize the limited time they had. All four team members agreed that it was the most they have learned in such a short amount of time. 

“You’ve got freedom to fail and freedom to grow,” Messerli said. 

Grandberg said it is a lot of work to organize a hackathon, but he would love to see more of them become available to students. He encourages community members to support them by participating as judges, sponsors and mentors. 

Carter Hanson, a junior studying computer science at South Dakota State University, has traveled to Iowa twice with other SDSU students to attend the hackathons hosted by Kreative Horizon, as there are no other hackathons closer to their campus. 

However, attending these events has inspired Hanson and his classmates to collaborate with Gupta to host their own hackathon near SDSU in the near future. 

The projects developed at hackathons are not typically sustained beyond their initial presentations, which sometimes leads to criticism that they do not deliver impactful solutions. However, for Gupta, hackathons and entrepreneurship are not about business creation but rather on taking “at-bats.” 

“Your first probably seven ideas are going to suck, right? Maybe even your eighth or ninth,” Gupta said. “Going to hackathons forces you to come up with something, think about something, put yourself in the shoes of a problem solver. So even if you’re not going there and building a business, you’re just getting an ‘at-bat’ to go try and solve problems.”

Gupta said that even if students don’t plan to pursue entrepreneurship, they can apply their hackathon experiences to a wide range of roles. 

“We’re trying to get students those skills to think quickly and solve problems,” Gupta said, “and they can go do that as an entrepreneur, a nonprofit founder, employee at a company or as a student.”