How to Approach Your First Hackathon
A reflection of my first hackathon and what I would do differently.
Yesterday concluded my first hackathon. From beginning to end, The Valtech Social Impact Hackathon was 52 1/2 hours, a little over 2 days! You may be thinking, “Two days to do a hackathon, ok, but what is it exactly?”. According to Wikipedia, a hackathon is a design sprint-like event; often, in which computer programmers and others collaborate intensively on software projects. The goal of a hackathon is to create functioning software or hardware by the end of the event. Depending on the hackathon, there may be certain requirements and restrictions, such as languages, technologies, organizations, age range, APIs, etc. Now that we know what a hackathon is let’s get started.
How do I find a hackathon?
If you would like to contribute to a hackathon Devpost is a great resource to find upcoming events. Their page lists the dates, prizes, participants, and location (currently all online) of upcoming hackathons. Linkedin and Instagram, depending on who you follow, are options as well! I heard about Valtech’s Social Impact Hackathon through Baddies in Tech on Instagram. If you’re in school, check with other students, clubs, or bulletins for events.
Most of the hackathons I’ve seen are free, however, some require an entry fee. On top of cost, make sure to consider your availability. These events great learning and networking opportunities, but they’re time-consuming, usually an all-day/late night type of event.
Hackathons often have team size restrictions. The one I just completed allowed teams of 1–5 people, which seems to be the average. Initially, I was scared to participate by myself, so I asked a couple of friends to join me. Since we had already formed our team, we skipped the team formation workshop. Not participating in the workshop would end up being my biggest regret. Akiko Green, Taci Shlosberg, and I went to Flatiron School together but hadn’t worked with each other. Luckily, we communicated well, divided up the workload evenly, and worked well together.
The problem was we had a similar skillset. Had we gone to the team formation workshop we would have met product managers, UX/UI designers, and data scientists. Not only did we miss out on a networking opportunity, but collaborating with others would have taken our project to another level! We had a great idea and built a working program in two days but were missing the visuals. Our team had room for two and we didn’t take advantage of that opportunity.
If you would like to participate in a hackathon, but don’t have a team, do not let that keep you from contributing. The mentors and participants that I encountered were all friendly and wanting to interact. Go to the event ready to network and participate in the workshops. Also, look for opportunities to communicate that you need a team. Valtech provided a discord channel, while Devpost displays a status of belonging to or looking for a team.
Each hackathon will have some guidelines in regards to the project needs. For Valtech, we had to create tools, applications, or come up with product ideas that impacted underserved communities. To be successful in the hackathon, having a unique and creative idea is necessary. However, a great idea only part of the equation. You must be able to show how great your idea is.
Our approach was to get right to work and build a program. Due to the time constraint, there were things that we wanted to incorporate in our program that we knew we wouldn’t be able to build out, so we dropped them. Although practical it doesn’t help with selling the idea. Instead of cutting out technologies and features, we could have built our program with the anticipation of including them in the future. Those that won the hackathon had slideshows of what inspired their project and examples of what their final projects would look like. The judges know that you can’t build a beautiful, fully functional program in 2 days, but they want to see what you’re working towards.
If the hackathon you’re participating in has workshops make sure to attend the ones that interest you. The organizers put a lot of time and effort into providing workshops that are informative and relevant. For example, I’ve been wanting to learn cloud computing but with so many options was overwhelmed. Luckily for me, I was able to participate in the Cloud/API workshop and have my questions answered by the speaker, who is a lead cloud engineer at Valtech.
Not only are the workshops valuable because they give you access to experts in the field, but the techniques/material taught can be incorporated into your projects. A workshop I did not attend but could have helped create a prototype of our project was the Figma workshop. I heard one of the participants (that had experience with Figma) say that he walked away learning something new.
Two reasons we didn’t participate in most of the workshops were because of the time constraint and the workshops were being recorded. Since we would be able to access the recorded workshops at a later time, I figured I’d make time for them outside the hackathon. I didn’t want to let my team down by not working on my portion of the project. It is hard to step away from a project when you’re on a roll or have a deadline. If however, you’re stuck or think the subject of the workshop is interesting, take the break! It’s good to walk away from your code every once in a while.
One last thing I would like to add, ask for help. Hackathons provide great resources from mentors, leaders, workshops, your team, and other participants. There can be lots of pressure during a hackathon, in my case mostly self-imposed, but you don't have to deal with it on your own. If you’ve been staring at your code for a while and can’t figure out what’s wrong, ask one of your teammates to look it over. If you still can’t figure it out, and Google isn’t helping, ask a mentor. *Remember to explain what language you’re using and what your code is doing, so that they have a better understanding of the problem.
Hackathons are a great way to practice your skills, learn, network, and collaborate with others. It’s also a great way to discover what areas you can improve in and how much you actually know. I’m assuming it’s also a great way to see what it would be like to work with other teams in a professional environment. Overall, go into the hackathon with an open mind and ready to contribute, but most of all, have fun!