5 stages of jitters during my first hackathon

Harpekhna Mahajan.
Jun 11 · 8 min read

On March 28, 2019 I received a message from a friend about an upcoming hackathon in Vancouver. We had recently completed a UX/UI course together and on the last day of class we discussed ways we could help and encourage each other on the career front.

Going to our first hackathon was one of them.

I had never been to a hackathon before, and idea of it scared me to my very core. All I could imagine was a group of highly talented and experienced software engineers creating award-winning products overnight.

Fast-forward to 9:00 am on May 4th, 2019 where the air was filled with coffee-fuelled tech geeks rushing down the street trying to look for the entrance. It felt like the hackathon had already started and the clock was ticking. This wasn’t helping my nerves at all. In fact, for some reason, everyone around me was talking about being a software engineer, and I was scared that my assumptions of a hackathon were all coming true.

The adrenaline was high, and so were the nerves. “What am I even doing here?”, “Everyone seems so talented”, “Is everyone here a developer?” “what if they think design is a joke?”, “I barely know how to code, oh my god, what if I bring the team down?”, “I should’ve had breakfast”, “Is that cookies I smell?”

…and with that in mind, I walked into my first hackathon, hands in my pocket, sweaty palms and a small polite smile, praying that it would either be an amazing experience, or that it would all get cancelled and I could run back home.

To my pleasant surprise, my first hackathon was one of the best experiences I have ever had. We often associate nerves with something negative, and something to avoid. What we forget to realize is that with the nerves come excitement, motivation and even happiness- something that pushed me to make the most out of my time at the event. For this reason, I prefer calling them jitters, and oh boy were there a lot of them. But with these jitters came the chance to network, to meet incredibly nice and talented people from all different ages and careers, and to learn skills I didn’t think would come from a two day event like this.

Although the jitters came in waves, they were present throughout, and they came in 5 different stages:

STAGE ONE: Hours 1–5: The imposter syndrome

The first 5 hours consisted of doubts and fear. Doubts that my skills were not good enough to be at a hackathon, and fear because I believed that everyone at the hackathon should be an expert coder, otherwise your role is irrelevant. Looking around the room I saw people who already knew each other, people of all different ages with big corporate jobs, or people who had been coding for years. I sat down at my table overwhelmed. As the rest of my team members approached the table, the jitters increased.

As the hackathon started, I felt myself come at a standstill of complete panic. I looked around and saw people jump straight into typing profusely on their laptops or have pages and pages of planning.

I had no idea where to start. It felt like everything I do as part of my design process had been erased from my mind and I couldn’t even formulate sentences.

I took a minute for myself and broke the problem down. I resorted to speak to the rest of my group about our ideas and our goal for our product and things started to come together.

What I realized about this first stage is the importance of communication and trust in your group. Working together made the initial stage exciting and motivating. Having a team work towards the same goal and finding a way to incorporate our best skills to create a product was extremely motivating.

I felt more confident about where to begin, but the jitters were high. VERY high.

STAGE TWO: Hours 7–10: How has it already been this long?

At one point the room turned silent and all you could here were the taps on people’s laptops. After stage 1 of complete and utter panic, I managed to use those jitters to push me to get to work once I got settled in.

Once I got started, I kept going and so did our team. We constantly updated each other, worked through the details of our vision and brainstormed on the ideas we had. We were so caught up in our project and in the progress I barely noticed how much time had already passed.

This was both a good and a bad thing. Good in the sense that a two day hackathon didn’t seem that long now. Bad in the sense that a two day hackathon WASN’T that long.

The jitters came flooding back. Now in the form of stress in order to manage our time and get the product ready for the next day. The jitters also complimented the sense of accomplishment, in how much progress had been made in an environment of stress and excitement.

STAGE THREE: Hours 11–15: I can’t feel my eyes.

Never had I stared at my screen for so many hours continuously. It felt like I hadn’t blinked in days and my eyes had dried up.

The jitters at this stage reached a plateau. There was a high recognition of the work that had been put in, and an even greater recognition of the bond that had been formed within the group. We grew to be comfortable in our own fields and eager to show and teach the other members our languages.

This stage of the hackathon consisted of staying up late with everyone finishing up as much as we could and planning out our final steps. The jitters turned from individual jitters to group jitters, as our nerves became a collective concern. Forming that bond with the group and working together helped us be more effective individually and together, and therefore help us achieve our collective goal.

STAGE FOUR: 1–5: Last push and we’re done. Wait, where is the second part of the product?!

Day 2 started with more confidence and familiarity. Familiarity with the space, with the group of people I was working with, and with our goal for the hackathon: learning.

Being a group that shared this same goal made the overall experience incredibly rewarding and the jitters completely worth it.

The second day was using these jitters to power through the final details of the project and preparing our presentation.

Easier said than done for sure.

The second day also consisted of a lot of last minute bugs and errors. Last minute quick fixes and hysteria from not sleeping.

10 minutes left until the deadline- the presentation isn’t done, our write up isn’t done and there’s still some parts of the product missing.


STAGE FIVE: 5–9: The return of the imposter syndrome

The last stage brought everything together. It brought the importance of the jitters to light, it showcased the amount of talent in the room, and the mutual understanding of all the feelings of stress, excitement, panic and happiness.

However, it also brought back the fear that our talent and our work wasn’t good enough, or up to par with everyone else. This was especially hard seeing a number of groups present before us.

What I learned from this was resorting to my group for guidance. We all had similar thoughts, and the idea of presenting a project with these thoughts in our head seemed daunting. Talking to each other and reminding ourselves of all that we’ve learned and how much effort and talent had to be put in to create our project pushed us to stand proud and share our creation.

More than that, completing a project we were proud brought us together as a group and made me learn so much from different tech fields. This hackathon not only made me develop career-based skills, but also personal ones. It allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and share my doubts, fears, curiosities and passion with likeminded people. It also gave me the rare opportunity to work with people from all different backgrounds and ages with different life/career paths that I loved hearing about, and for me, thats a win.

Overall learnings:

trust: Trusting my group and trusting my skills. It’s easy to let the jitters get the best of you, but taking the time to calm down and remind yourself of your talent and your skills, and how much trusting and working together with your team can help you achieve your goal, is the key to make the most out of an event such as this one.

be open minded: going into new situations can be scary, but being open to an unexpected outcome helps make the process all the more rewarding. Keeping an open mind helped me meet incredibly nice and talented people who I am still in touch with until date. Being open minded also helped me learn and grow not only as a designer but as a person too.

set goals: before going into the hackathon I had set out a list of goals, all related to learning. To my pleasant surpise 7/10 of those goals were achieved. This helped me stay focused and make the most out of the hackathon.

be prepared to be nervous: as I’ve mentioned before, the jitters and nerves were present throughout the whole event, but recognizing the positive side of these jitters pushed me to work hard, learn from the people around me and challenge myself as a designer.

have fun: Hands down, the most important one. Taking part of this hackathon was not only rewarding and an amazing experience, but it was also incredibly fun. The experience and the people make up this component and by being in the moment, talking to as many people as you can, and enjoying the process, I will always be really grateful for taking the step to take part of something outside of my comfort zone.

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Finally, special thank you to Girls in Tech Van for this amazing event and to my hackathon team for being a great team to be a part of for my first hackathon!

Product Created:

Project Devpost: https://devpost.com/software/ripple-nvxz3o

Project Case Study: https://medium.com/@harpekhna/ripple-app-created-at-my-first-hackathon-3b8bbcdc30be

Portfolio: https://harpekhnamahajan.com/

Thank you for reading :)

Harpekhna Mahajan.

Written by

Visual Designer specializing in graphic and product design.

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