How I lost $20,000… 11 things I learned at my first hackathon

Jose Casanova
Oct 11, 2015 · 5 min read

I entered my first hackathon this past May and it was pretty fucking awesome. I didn’t win the grand prize of $20,000, but now I know what it takes to win next time around. Here are a few things I learned from my first hackathon rodeo:

What we built… we didn’t win though :(

You can go by yourself and join a team, or start your own

I went to the hackathon by myself and was not sure what to expect. Turns out I wasn’t the only one! People were forming teams from the get go, others had teams already formed. Its OK to join a team, don’t be shy. If you’re not interested in joining another team then form your own.

Come with an idea of what you want to build

Have a general idea of the product you want to build before coming into the hackathon. It is beneficial to have an idea in case you don’t join a team that already has one. The reason for this is so that you don’t waste your limited time on idea generation when you can be building. Also, be realistic of WHAT you’re going to build. Keep it lean and eliminate the bells and whistles. You don’t want to scatter a few hours before the hackathon ends trying to finish the core product because you spent all of your time on a random feature.

Two types of people that go to hackathons, which are you?

There are two types of people that go to hackathons. People that are completing to win the prize and people that just want to have fun by building something or learning a new technology. What group do you fall in? If you’re in the competing class then you’re going to take the hackathon a lot more serious than just a few people having fun.

Bring some toiletries

After working for 24 hours straight it is always nice to freshen up. A clean t-shirt and toothbrush can do wonders to your mood. It is like flipping a switch to make you feel brand new and it will re-energize you.

Team up with people that are more experienced that you

It is always a good idea to team up with people that are more experienced that you, hackathon or not. This will allow you to learn from experienced developers and provide a resource for you in case you run into any issues. Veteran hackers will be able to help you out faster than Google. They will also be able to push you to learn and help you troubleshoot any issues you might come across.

Be honest with your skill set

Be honest with your team regarding your skill set. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rookie that is just learning HTML or a seasoned h4x0r, it will help the team assess where the best use of resources will be. With that said, don’t be the guy/girl that says they’re an l33t Rails h4x0r and haven’t even written a line of Ruby. This will be a waste of your time and your teammates. They won’t be upset with rookie talent… they’d actually help you!

Its OK Try new technologies

Pushing yourself is the only way for you to grow, especially as a developer. Try building something with a new technology. Team up with someone that has experience with that stack/language and ask them questions if you ever run into any issues. Again, you can go to a hackathon to learn and have fun!

Take a break every once in a while

Sitting for a few hours head down will start to take its toll on you. Take a break every few hours and go for a walk outside. It’ll get the blood flowing, let you clear your head, and give you a boost of energy. This will do wonders for your productivity since you will have a clear head to solve problems with.

Manage your energy

Manage your energy properly. Don’t get super drunk right off the bat, remember, you’re most likely going to be on limited sleep. Getting blackout wasted isn’t going to help you early on. Also, monitor your caffeine levels so that you don’t crash and be forced to work through that low energy. Finally, take a NAP! This is so important, towards the end of the hackathon it was taking me three times as long to code something up because my head wasn’t clear… I was tired. I took a 20 minute nap and felt completely refreshed and was able to be more productive. That 20 minute nap got me just enough of REM/deep sleep to keep me going.

It is all about the presentation

Holy fuck was I underestimating this part of the hackathon. I thought the point was just to build something cool… I didn’t know you actually had to do a badass presentation. Boy was I wrong, presentation is KEY to winning a hackathon. You have to be able to sell the judges on what you built with a great presentation and product demo. This is by far the most important part of the hackathon if you’re looking to win. Design is important too, at least some of it.

Have fun

Messing around with Oculus

This is the most important piece of advice I can offer for people looking to enter their first hackathon! HAVE FUN! Yes, it’s a competition, but enjoy yourself… that’s the reason why you entered it in the first place. Have some fun, make some friends, network a bit, and build cool shit… that’s what it boils down to.


Originally published at Jose Casanova’s Thoughts.

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