A hackathon is an event, typically lasting for 24-48 hours, in which a group of people with diverse backgrounds come together to solve a problem by building a first working prototype of a solution (usually a web app, program or a utility).
There is something inherently likable, or dare I say, smart, about hackathons. They have a specific goal, your progress and results are measurable, getting a first working prototype is both achievable and realistic, and it will all be over in 24-48 hours. I have come to appreciate hackathons a lot over the last five months where I’ve participated in five, and won two of them with my teams. I would like to invite you to participate in one as well by giving you 7±2 tips to make your hackathon experience especially enjoyable.
#1 Just go
There’s more to a hackathon than just programming. Every team needs to tackle a wide variety of tasks ranging from totally non-technical to highly technical. Someone has to make nice visuals, look for evidence to back the product, write code to make it work and combine all the work into a meaningful proposal for the jury. The best teams in a hackathon have a diverse set of skills in a team (although always at least one developer).
Worst case scenario is that you’ve grown your professional network, enjoyed some social meals and gained invaluable experience of developing something from an ideation phase to a first working prototype.
#2 Focus on your unique skillset
Your expertise in your favorite domain in psychology will be an important contribution to the team. In the Accenture Digital Hackathon our Bitein team worked on making language learning easier. As an experimental psychologist with a special interest in memory research, I could make sure that our product incorporates spaced repetition and self-testing – two most scientifically backed ways to enhance memory.
From psychological research we know that brainstorming sessions generate way more ideas when participants brainstorm on their own first, and only then share their ideas with others. We can use our questionnaire building skills to carry out – decent market research, or design experiments (A/B tests) to make confident causal statements about the solid base for our product. The more you develop your technical skills, the more you can be involved with the implementation of these ideas yourself.
#3 Focus on giving your best (not winning)
Winning is not under your control, doing your best is. Winning is a destination, doing your best is a process that optimizes your chances of getting there. Having the attitude of focusing on things under your control allows you to feel good about the progress you are making without making unfair comparisons with others. In every hackathon I’ve been to, there have been teams who silently leave the event thinking their great idea was crap just because they didn’t win a prize.
Doing your best includes working with a goal in mind and with a clear understanding of the judging criteria, also optimizing your chances of winning a sponsor prize. But, judges make their decision based on the competition of that event. Also, you end up in a team with people you didn’t know before and your team might choose to pursue an idea in a field you are not familiar with – yet.
#4 Prepare for the pitch, and practise!
One of the biggest mistakes teams can do in a hackathon is to underestimate the importance of an amazing pitch. In most cases, those 2 minutes are the only time the judges ever hear about your product (a technical check is done separately).
Hackathon organizer and pitch coach Brian Collins recommends teams to choose the pitcher early and start practising early. Also, at least the pitcher should get a good night’s sleep. It means that the pitcher knows in advance to start gathering punchlines, finding her own phrasing that would carry the meaning seamlessly, and packaging it in a unique manner. Three hours of pitch preparation has been the absolute minimum in my teams.
#5 Have a working prototype
There is a big difference between teams selling an idea, and teams that sell an idea with a working prototype. If your idea relies on translating parts of webpages, then demonstrate that you can do that and forget building the login screen. Get something ready, and then, don’t break it (or just use Git).
At IBC Hackfest, our Skipaclass team’s lead developer Itay Kinnrot categorically refused to make any changes to the code during the last hour before the deadline. Our prototype was working flawlessly and our pitcher could sell our future development plans on top of that solid basis. We won.
#6 Have fun
Hackathons are engaging, thrilling and intense. Most people even spend the night at the venue. It can quickly induce a state where the only thing you think of is your idea and your prototype. But, hackathons bring together an amazing bunch of people. Take time to learn more about your teammates, who they are as fellow human beings. Take time to talk to that mentor working in a company you would love to work for. One day, one of these mentors might offer you a job just like Stefan Hogendoorn (mentor at IBC Hackfest) offered me a job at Qlouder.
Participating in hackathons has been lots of fun and a great place for professional development. Just type in ‘hackathon’ and your current city to get hackathon experiences of your own.
PS! If you are still wondering why ‘magical’ and ‘7±2’, then click here.