How to win at hackathons

Bilal Akhtar
4 min readSep 23, 2017


Okay, that is a very clickbait (and slightly misleading) title. I apologize.

I spent the last weekend at Hack the North. This was my fourth Hack the North and the first time where I wasn’t hacking (instead, I was representing sponsor Cockroach Labs, where I interned this summer). That gave me the time to observe other people hacking without being stressed about finishing up my own hack.

What I noticed was that many people went into hackathons with the wrong expectations. Some formed teams with their friends, only to find out that they couldn’t really work together very well. Others saw it as a competition alone and ignored the networking/having fun/learning/attending talks/staying healthy aspects, while also burning themselves out.

So what do I suggest? There’s no silver bullet here, but I do have some tips.

Form teams with people whose interests match yours, and whose experience level is on par with yours

The interests part should be straightforward. Let me explain the experience level part.

Hackathons are great places for beginners. Most people try to mix beginners with more experienced programmers when forming teams, hoping that it’ll lead to better functioning teams. It rarely works out that way in practice, since hackathons are so short.

If there’s a big skills mismatch within a team, the people learning are going to feel bad for slowing the team down, and the people teaching/“carrying” will feel like their potential is being limited. Sometimes, the beginners might totally get ignored in the interest of time and may walk away from the hackathon having learned very little. No one feels satisfied in the end of it all.

Speaking of teaching and learning, hackathons usually have amazing mentorship resources (often including industry experts) and you should totally take advantage of them! There’s a lot you can learn in 24–36 hours, especially as a group.

Aim to learn and experiment, not to win

Put simply, winning is hard. And you’ll be disappointed if you aren’t able to finish your hack, or if you believe the judging was unfair for you/your hack. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to win, but don’t make it the main goal.

Pick a good idea, one that you really want to explore or learn about. Don’t pick an idea just because it checks off the most boxes on the judges’ rubrics, or because it’s going to incorporate two dozen sponsor APIs. If the idea aligns well with your interests, you’re much more likely to pour your best effort into it — and who knows, you might actually win those coveted prizes!

Also, don’t be afraid to take a stab at a very ambitious project idea. It’s totally okay to “fail” — it’s not like you’ve poured months or thousands of dollars worth of effort into your hack . You’re at a hackathon, after all. Some of the best hacks I’ve seen, managed to solve one tiny part of what is a very challenging, multi-faceted problem.

Sleep is normal, don’t suppress it (or pressure others to)

Health and sanity matters. Not everyone can pull off an all nighter (I definitely can’t). Hog the nicer chairs/couches, and doze off early as if it’s just another day. When you wake up, don’t forget to take advantage of the mental energy boost caused by a healthy sleep cycle that most people have mysteriously opted out of.

There were many occasions at hackathons when I slept the most on my team, but that was fine. I tried to encourage my teammates to sleep too, but if they insisted otherwise, I’d try my best to finish my work to the extent that it wasn’t blocking theirs before I went to sleep.

Attending a hackathon does not imply not sleeping. Almost all hackathons have some sleeping provisions — use them!

It’s a conference! Treat it as one

Talk to sponsors and other hackers. Go to the workshops and talks. Don’t expect to hack 24/7 — and don’t be afraid to leave your team behind and go to these (better yet, encourage them to come along too).

You’re probably not going to work on your hack after the weekend. And if you just wanted to hack, you could technically do it from home. But the talks and networking opportunities are hard to come by — take advantage of them!

Hack the North has always offered a wide range of impressive talks. In the past, they’ve hosted fireside chats with VCs like Sam Altman, Vinod Khosla and Chamath Palihapitiya. This year, among other talks, there was an impressive panel on diversity and inclusion that dove right into discussing the tech industry’s biggest weakness. The educational value of these talks is off the charts.

Oh, and Justin Trudeau headlined the opening ceremonies. Now that’s winning. Or, in the words of the president of a neighbouring country:

We’re going to win so much. You’re going to get tired of winning. you’re going to say, ‘Please Mr. President, I have a headache. Please, don’t win so much. This is getting terrible.’ And I’m going to say, ‘No, we have to make America great again.’ You’re gonna say, ‘Please.’ I said, ‘Nope, nope. We’re gonna keep winning.’



Bilal Akhtar

Currently building great database systems. Software engineering grad, @UWaterloo. Engaged citizen. Urbanist.