How To Lead A Hackathon Project

5 things I wish I knew before wildly hacking the day away

#LadyHacks2015: old laptop, same glasses.

This past weekend was #LadyHacks2017. An annual fundraiser for Philly’s Girl Develop It, LadyHacks is a women*-only hackathon known for its inclusive atmosphere and beginner-friendly approach to collaborating on tech projects.

My first introduction to LadyHacks was in 2015. As a Los Angeles native who just finished surviving her first winter, I embraced Philly tech events with three simple goals: make friends, connect, and discover new job opportunities.

Flash-forward to 2017. Having dedicated myself to a passion project that is without a doubt heavily influenced by the current political climate, I was driven by a different desire. This year’s LadyHacks provided me with the opportunity to share and build upon a vision. This time was political.

I pitched my project, light-pollution, and managed to assemble a team. My goal was to find and work with women who were interested in open-source, civic tech engagement. I’m happy to report I succeeded.

Here are the 5 things I wish I knew before wildly hacking away at LadyHacks:

1. Develop methods for helping code newbies

There’s always a way to contribute to the success of those around us. Instead of belittling and deriding other team members, keep in mind that it’s easy for more experienced devs to forget the initial intimidation, frustration, and overwhelming fear we encounter when first learning a new skill. It’s through struggle that we build motivation, knowledge, and better learning instincts — internal tools that inevitably make the dev pains a little lighter, the workflow a little faster. Code newbies, never forget: the only way out is through.

(Besides: nothing is more humbling than being the condescending a*hole who inevitably gets put in her place. No matter your skill level, you’re never too good to fail.)

2. Consider ideas and suggestions in the context of scope

Scope, much like this section, should be short and sweet. If you’re the team lead, remember two things:

  1. You can’t do it alone, so delegate tasks in consideration of scope and skill level.
  2. Stay open and collaborative — but stick to the initial vision. Never allow suggestions that fall outside of scope to influence the project’s journey.

For team members: challenge yourself to take initiative (within the confines of scope). At LadyHacks, I was quietly grateful to the women who stepped up and led the beginners on our team. By leading in this way, you help keep the group moving, allowing space for critical next steps to develop.

3. Reach out to mentors

As guides who don’t quite steer the ship — but keep everyone from drowning — mentors are invaluable.

The mentor who took the most interest in our group sent us a GitHub Cheat Sheet via our repository’s issues list, helped us brainstorm when we were at our most brain-dead, and reminded me to adjust the project’s scope, accordingly.

When you’re feeling bogged down and time is pressing down on the intricate ridges of your brain, remember to reach out for the lifeline that is a mentor’s perspective, knowledge, and advice.

4. There is a special kind of hell that is an introvert leading other introverts in group brainstorming sessions

…and a tiny slice of heaven that is everyone eschewing small talk for contemplative coding sessions.

5. Allow for hours — or days — of processing

As team lead, I felt overworked, stretched too thin, and unfocused. Whether it was lack of sleep or not enough coffee, I couldn’t help but think that everyone disliked me and hated the project. I questioned and doubted the benefits of hacking together a sh*tty prototype versus presenting a pretty pitch deck. By the end of the day, I was completely drained, unable to process, and stuck in a nightmarish loop of restless sleep.

It wasn’t until after the hackathon that I could finally shake off such an unsettling bout of impostor syndrome. By being receptive to the stories, feedback, and experiences of women around me, a more honest introspection was finally allowed to thrive within. It doesn’t matter how wild, how overwhelming, or how hacked the experience is. It’s only through learning, sharing, and building together that we become better developers and better humans to one another — regardless of the chaos we continually resist.

BILLIMARIE LUBIANO ROBINSON really likes it when people don’t shorten her name. She is also the co-founder of CLASP, teaches kids and teens how to code, and used to hitchhike around the country with her pink typewriter giving away FREE POETRY to strangers.