How to keep calm and win hackathons

Hello! I made a 2016 resolution list, and one of the items there is that I have to publish at least 13 articles during the 2016 year (more than one post per month ^_^). However, I will do my best to make the content entertaining and useful! I PROMISE. So, don’t wait and follow me on Medium! And, let’s start right now!

Today my story is about hackathons — the other part of my life. I have visited 4 different hackathons up to today, and only at the last one I won a prize for the first time (:

I know that four isn’t really a big number, but I haven’t been blogging for a long time despite my inner need to share the thoughts. So, this is a good opportunity to share my success formula with you. I don’t really know if it works, so, you should try it on your own and report back to me about your experience :P
So, sit back and listen to my stories…

DOU Hackathon @ Lviv

There were no specific topics, so participants were able to implement everything they wanted. I found the group of two not-very-experienced but talented developers a few days before the event, but we agreed on what to implement only after the hackathon’s opening ceremony. Our project was to implement the judge for the card game (popular in Ukraine) called Mafia. Typically, one of the players cannot enjoy the game, because the game requires the control by the judge. We decided to shift that responsibility to the machine so every player could be involved into the game for 100%. Unfortunately, our poor developer experience and bad presentation didn’t bring a lot of points to my team, and we were placed somewhere in the bottom of the ranking. The winners implemented one page in the browser, where you upload the song and band of minions plays that song using guitar, drums, etc. In the end of the presentation, guys put the unexpected BSOD just for fun, which was a very remarkable ending (you know, people really enjoy other’s failure). I highlighted a few experience bullets here:

  • have an entertaining presentation
  • complete at least the mock product
  • have relevant experience

BestHack Game hackathon @ Lviv

My team is pitching the game concept

Obviously, every team at the competition has to implement a fancy game. Since we were not experienced in game development at all, we decided to implement simple 2D tile-based game. The aim of the game was to destroy your enemies on the way to the exit, but you have only limited time, so every your move must be smart ;) It was something like real-time strategy, which I really enjoy playing in the end.
I offered to use my prior experience this time, so we have the first app ready for demo approximately in a few hours, but that was a real disaster! At some point, I was so tired and disappointed with our progress so I gave up and went to sleep. When I woke up I was extremely impressed by the progress my team made, and with a few newly introduced features the game become truly engaging!
As a part of my experience integration, I offered to add some easy-to-recognize memes to the game flow to make a final presentation more remarkable.
Despite we were a bit different from the rest of the teams with the memes and interactive presentation during the pitch, we didn’t win this hackathon. To be honest, I don’t remember the app from the winner, but I do remember that they presented their app as the “app which will help children” and they had a gorgeous design. So, this leads us to the other lessons:

  • have a spectacular aim / target audience
  • invest the majority of the efforts into the design

HackZurich 2014 @ Zurich

All the amazing folks of HackZurich 2014. Photography: www.manuelmaisch.ch

This is my favorite hackathon for now! It took place at Zurich, an extremely beautiful city in gorgeous Switzerland. I can talk a lot about my impressions from this city, but let’s advance to the hackathon (:
First of all, hackathon was organised perfectly! It was clear that everything was planned extremely carefully, and I again want to say thanks to organizers! Unfortunately, I didn’t attend the HackZurich 2015, but I am sure it was even more impressive! Hope to be there at 2016 ;)

I am playing with the winner’s app at HackZurich. Photography: www.manuelmaisch.ch

I had a great idea (at least my friends and I think so) — we aimed to develop the service which will pick the gifts for your friends based on their activity in social networks. Just imagine, how awesome it would be if you could pick the perfect gift for the most important people in your life in a few clicks! Unfortunately, I made interested in my project only a few people during the pitch presentation, so I didn’t get the desired designer into the team. As a result, we built very basic functionality, where I used the database server from GoDaddy (note: very hard to manage and set up, slow performance in the result which slows the progress overall). Moreover, the website itself wasn’t very attractive, since my team consisted of two serverside developers.

The first prize went to the team who had the virtual reality involved. Hot topic indeed. The project was really impressive, guys “made some noise” during the develop phase, offering to try their app.
BONUS My friend won the prize from Apple using their Metal API and implementing the camera which blurs the faces on the go. He often talked to Apple representatives, had a sensitive story about the girl who could avoid the fine when using his app, and made a remarkable pitch!

So, I learned a few lessons from this hackathon:

  • Typically, two server-side developers are too much for the hackathon projects
  • The design is a MUST!
  • Make yourself stand out during the development (often, trying to achieve that at the final presentation is too late)
  • Know who is the sponsors and try to twist your project with their product
  • *bonus* I recommend to take a look on beautiful parse.com if you plan to deal with databases in your future hackathons. Easy to manage and use!

Garage48 @ Lviv

Finally, we reached my first victory at the hackathon. I decided to use most of the lessons I have described above, and I believe that they are the key to success at hackathon ;)

Looks like judges enjoy my idea ;)

Note: The following text may look a bit perverted, but that was only for pure fun!

Due to the rules, I have to present my project before the coding phase, and I can use only one slide as a background for my presentation. I used this opportunity to display Sasha Grey at the full screen… Trust me, that attracts a lot of attention :P Then I tried to explain my idea as simple as possible: our product will give you the chance to see your girl next door naked! (it’s not exactly true, but sounds very breath-taking, guys will understand :P ). Actually, we planned to build the app which will find the pornstars similar to your friends. What you have to do is to upload the photo of your colleague, sit back and relax! Very fast I received the scene name “the guy with Sasha Grey”, and our project has a lot of attention since the very first minute :D
That attentions brought us the nice hackathon-experienced guy. First of all, he was responsible for the whole look of our website, and he did that pretty well! That was exactly what I was missing during my previous hackathons.
We have a lot of guys visiting our “dev zone” during the coding time, and everyone wanted to know our progress or share their thoughts! And that was wonderful — to know that people really interested in what you do (despite it’s quite perverted, you know)!
Also, we made it clear that we are going to use “Face API” from Microsoft. That’s, actually, was our winning point, since in the end we received the prize from Microsoft. Because of the tough limits of the API (20 requests / minute, 5000 requests / month) we weren’t able to show the full potential of our app, but we really didn’t tell about this to the judges. These are the small lies, which is, I guess, allowed at hackathons ;)

My team posing for the collective photo. To be honest, that picture we picked at the office, where the competition took place. It’s not mine :P

Together with my team, we have a lot of fun building the website, acquiring the domain, throwing in the fake websites to the facebook group for the participants, discussing with the mentors pros and cons, introducing the Easter eggs. And that all in just 48 hours!
Thank you, guys! That was amazing experience (:
To sum up, we got the special prize from Microsoft. It’s not exactly the first place, but this is the recognition, isn’t it?!

Conclusion

To win the hackathon, you have to:

  • have a well-shaped team with not more than one server-side developer with relevant experience, one good designer and one the amazing storyteller
  • have an impressive aim
  • start promoting your product during the hackathon
  • *bonus* more technical details you may find by the link

Also, I want to warn you that the hackathons have a lot of different aims besides winning. First of all, this is amazing opportunity to learn new technology. For example, you can challenge yourself to build a new website using language you have never seen before. Or to develop the chrome extension in 48 hours despite you are the Android developer. Be creative, it’s not that difficult. And, in the end, your experience will be your prize!
Also, hackathon is a good way to find:

  • interesting people for future collaboration
  • the inspiration for personal development
  • potential employers
  • *bonus* designers for future hackathons, since they are the endangered species

It’s up to you what you look for at hackathon. Just do something, don’t be shy and don’t feel sorry! Good luck :D

And, as always, the “thematic” picture: