PennApps Fall 2015

Optimize your Hackathon Experience

Last week I had the privilege of judging the hardware track of the PennApps Hackathon. I’ve got about a half dozen hackathons under my belt at this point between participating, judging, and hosting (my last company was started at the 2013 Hackathon). I’ve been to collegiate, professional, and corporate hackathons. I’ve also been to one or two in dingy apartments or co-working spaces.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Don’t Just Try to Win

Unless you are a professional hackathoner who wants to make a living winning smart watches, tablets, and amazon gift cards, the point of a hackathon is to:

  • Build interpersonal and team skills under stress and tight deadlines
  • Learn new skills / tech by seeing someone use it in your project
  • Meet other hackers, tech companies, mentors, and the occasional angel investor
  • Bring a great idea to life

Ask for Help

Maybe it’s because I’m non-technical and so I’m used to asking dumb questions about how all sorts of things work, but I’m continually puzzled by the stigma of asking for help at collegiate hackathons. Most “professional” hackathons won’t have mentors, but almost every college hackathon has loads of them.

I’m tired of this conversation:

Chris: “Hey what are you working on?”
Hacker: “Project x…but I can’t get past this technical hurdle. I’m thinking of pivoting”
Chris: “Have you asked a mentor?”
Hacker: “Uhhh…no?”

I get it. You’re used to being one of the smartest people you know. You’re used to working through problems on your own. But here’s the thing: you’re surrounded by tons of smart people who know a lot more than you do in many areas.

Not asking for help is dumb. It slows your team down while you try to debug something on a tight deadline.

If (experience > ‘you’ || connections > ‘you’) {

greeting = “Hi”


Most hackathons have sponsors who pay an absurd amount of money to recruit, formally or informally. Make sure you take some time to…cringe…network.

I know it’s a dirty word, especially for CS undergrads, but it doesn’t have to be that bad. At PennApps there were teams from Apple, UBER, AirBnB, Pebble, Twillio, and a whole lot of other awesome companies. They aren’t marketing reps. They’re engineers with really awesome experience. Tell everyone about your project. See what they think. You never know who you’ll impress, or what help they might offer.

Give a Sh*t About Design

I know many engineers think this is unfair, but a half functioning demo that looks good is almost always going to beat out a really impressive hack that looks like crap. I know I’m biased because this is my background, but seriously: get a designer on your team, or spend the time to learn basic design principles for your UI (and your pitch deck if you have one).

Practice the Pitch

Almost every hackathon I can think of has a pitch component, if you’re lucky/talented enough to make it to the finals. It’s important. Don’t think your tech will win alone. You have to be able to communicate your ideas effectively. And for a hackathon like PennApps, you have to do it in front of 2000 people.

A good rule of thumb for me is for every minute you’re pitching, spend 15 minutes rehearsing out loud. So if you have a 4 minute pitch you should rehearse at least an hour. Not repeating it over and over in your head. Do it out loud, in front of a mirror in the bathroom (or have a teammate record you). Watch your body language, make sure you put emphasis on the right things.

Also, don’t write a script. Just know your main talking points. It will be uncomfortable while practicing in the beginning, but it will sound much more natural in the end, and if you forget something it won’t totally derail you. No one but you knows what you’re trying to say.

Tips and Tricks

  • Sugar kills you. Beef Jerky, carrots and hummus, fruit leathers. Remember, you’re running a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Energy drinks are like mushrooms in Mario Kart. You have to know the exact right moment to use them. If you use to many in a row you’ll probably crash.
  • These chairs, buy them.
  • Snuggies are your friend.
  • Bring extra deodorant, wet wipes, and mouthwash.
  • Bring 2–3 sets of clothes and dress for comfort.
  • Sleep more on the first night (if its 36 or 48 hr). A 90 minute nap can clear your head.
  • Come in with an problem you want to solve, not a specific solution. This makes pivoting easier.
  • Research the sponsor prizes beforehand if you can.
  • If there’s hardware available, know what it is beforehand so you can plan for it. You don’t want to discover there aren’t strong enough power supplies halfway through.

Have Fun

Oh yeah, don’t forget to have a good time.