Three Steps to Succeeding at any Hackathon

And Making the Most Out of Your Experience There

Photo Credit to Major League Hacking @ MHacks IV

Hackathons are an increasingly popular phenomenon in the STEM community today, attracting hundreds of thousands of programmers, engineers, and the like to participate in multi-day sessions of coding, designing, and, well, hacking. Tons of different projects are conceived and birthed at these events, ranging from phone applications that help you speed-read through documents to margarita machines that automatically prepare you a drink when you arrive home; the potential for creativity is limitless in these spaces.

Likewise, you’ll find at all hackathons people with a variety of different motivations to attend and participate in them. Sally wants to test out her programming skills in real-world applications. Dave is looking to network with different companies and land himself an interview. Tom’s kind of a freeloader and is here for the merchandise. Regardless of the reasons they’re here, most attendees will have an underlying, passionate reason for coming:

They want to bring an idea to life.

Whether it’s something silly or something revolutionary, everyone at a hackathon has an idea for something. But in this setting, they have the potential to turn that idea into a real concept. In fact, the greatest perks that come with attending hackathons are knowing that your idea has a voice among a community and being able to receive the support and motivation to execute and pursue it. Here are three steps that will help you find that success and ultimately bring your notion to fruition.

Step 1: Forget About the Prizes

Yeah, you heard me right. Forget about the prizes. Had your eyes on winning those sweet LEGO Star Wars sets? Nope. Want that brand new Oculus Rift development kit? Nah. Willing to do anything to win that trip to Silicon Valley? Uhh, no.

A number of hackathons have had less than stellar project presentations, in part due to the high appeal of the prizes offered to attendees.

The downfalls of these hackathons don’t come from the prizes themselves, but from the responses of hackers to those incentives. Often these prizes are sponsor-provided or criterion-dependent, given to hackers who best use a sponsors’ API library in their projects or create hacks that have specific qualities or traits. Thus, more often than not, a person will go out of his or her own way to furiously incorporate a specific API or functionality into their project and thus earn a chance to win an award. Doing so almost always guarantees a project that was made halfheartedly, without real motivation or personal involvement.

The whole point of going to a hackathon is to pursue a personal idea and bring that idea to reality. Your own passions should determine the essence of your hack, not the rewards you can get for pursuing something you’re not interested in; you’re bringing your idea to life, not someone else’s. If that idea happens to fall within a prize’s requirements, great! You get to enjoy your time tinkering and hacking on your project and maybe win something nice in the end. But never make those prizes the priority in your hacking. Even if it is a kick-ass LEGO X-Wing.

Step 2: Find the Right Team

A lot of hackers ask this question before going to hackathons:

Do I need a team?

But the more important question to ask is:

Can I find people interested in what I’m pursuing?

Attendees are often pressured into creating their perfect dream teams before or during a hackathon, evidenced by the flurry of spreadsheets, requests, and rosters being thrown around online; it’s like a fantasy football league but with programmers. In the midst of all this, team members aren't always able to effectively communicate their own ideas for projects to teammates who have ideas for other projects, potentially resulting in disorganized and inconsistent teamwork.

Instead, try organizing the different ideas you have for potential projects and choosing one of them to proceed with before even considering finding other people to work with. With your chosen project in mind, search for others who are aiming towards similar concepts and reach out to them, regardless of their skill levels (you’ll be spending a good chunk of your time learning skills during the hackathon, anyways). Let your envisioned project, not others’ expertise, determine who your potential teammates will be, as it’s much easier to work with people passionate about the same endgoal rather than with people who have extensive knowledge but have different plans in mind.

Photo Credit to Major League Hacking @ CalHacks Fall 2014

Step 3: Use All of the Resources Available

The rich deposit of resources available to hackers at hackathons is an achievement in its own right. Never before have I seen a community event provide this much willing support and aid to its attendees, especially at the scale some of the larger hackathons operate at.

Photo Credit to Major League Hacking @ MHacks IV

Besides providing consistent and reliable Internet, electricity, and nutrition, hackathons sometimes also host interactive teaching platforms throughout the courses of the events. These have ranged from surveys connecting hackers who require/provide certain skills to full-on support centers specializing in a variety of software and hardware formats. Seminars are also a defining part of hackathons, with speakers from different engineering disciplines coming in to share not only technical knowledge but also personal advice and tips regarding your hack. Fellow attendees are perhaps your most accessible resource, as they’ll be working alongside you throughout the event and will be more than willing to help you with something they’re comfortable with (in exchange for a caffeine brownie or two).

Speaking from my own experiences, these resources are what can make or break your project.

You’re bound to run into a couple hundred bugs as you build your project or you might have difficulty finding the direction you want to go in with your hack. Regardless of your problem, you’ll find a solution one way or another among the multitude of help sites at any hackathon you attend. All you have to do is initiate the contact.

Photo Credit to major League Hacking @ HackCC 2014

So What Can I Take Away from All This?

While I can’t guarantee that following these three steps will ensure your name being placed on a trophy at all the hackathons you go to, I can assure you that you’ll be more satisfied with your hackathon experience than you would have been if you hadn't followed this guide.

Photo Credit to Major League Hacking @ GeauxHack

Because at the end of a hackathon, it’s not about getting a nice job at a top company; it’s about pursuing an idea, connecting with fellow hackers, and believing that you can make a difference in your community by following your passions. Good luck, and enjoy your time hacking.

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