Debunking myths about Hackathons — From a serial Hackathoner

Nabanita De
14 min readApr 1, 2020
Project FiB, winning the Google Moonshot Award

My Hackathon Journey till now….

Over the course of my Career, I have gone to over 20 Hackathons and won more than 12 of them. Some of my major achievements and startup ideas came from my Hackathons. Here are some of my Hackathon achievements, among many, I am extremely proud of -

  1. Built “Project FiB” at HackPrinceton 2016, won the Google Moonshot Award, which went on to be featured on Business Insider, Washington Post, The Next Web, Huffington Post, Hacker News and over 90% of News Publications worldwide and achieved 700 stars on Github in its first week of Publication and 20k page hits on Github, when we opensourced it. I was invited to Forbes 30 Under 30 Conference by the Forbes team for my work. Link —
  2. Built “VR Story Tellers” at the biggest AR/VR Hackathon in the world, at MIT Media Lab called Reality Virtually Hackathon 2016 and won the Most Refined Virtual Reality Mobile experience Qualcomm award, Best Up and coming Hacker Award, The 2000$ cash prize and an invitation to Harvard VR Labs.
  3. Won 1,25,000$ worth Azure Credits and won the first prize at Hack for Healthcare Hackathon at University of Washington.
  4. My first Hackathon project, Bluetooth Messenger, hit 50K downloads on the app store and was top 6 New and Rising Category Worldwide.

You can learn more on my Hackathon Journey here =

What is a Hackathon?

Hackathons are the newest wave of technical challenges and competitions, which may come with or without a theme and gives you the freedom to “hack”, which means solve a painpoint of this world by building a product or a presenting a proof of concept which can address that problem.

Hacking is not necessarily, hacking someone’s account but can be used as a term for coding or building a product.

It can be on-premise or online and usually lasts for a minimum of a day or a few days. The best site to find Hackathons and learn about examples of projects, people build would be .

Most of the Hackathons are open, however a few popular student Hackathons like HackMIT and HackPrinceton may ask you to apply, ahead in the time, to accomodate you, if its an in-person Hackathon and happening at the college campus. Since Hackathons often range for 2–3 days, these hackathons may provide you accommodation to hack on Campus, if its an on-campus college Hackathon and also provide you food and travel reimbursements, if applicable (Check that specific Hackathon site for more details).

Myth: Hackathons are for the people, who are geeky or have been coding for a very long time. If I apply as a First Time coder, I will never get in.

Truth: Hackathons are more fun than geeky. Fair number of Hackathons like HackMIT and HackPrinceton have prizes reserved for categories like first time Hackers and accept and encourage a good deal of first time Hackers (Coders).

Actually there are so many resources, sponsors, swag and fun games, often at these Hackathons, you are bound to have a great time, even if you go in knowing absolutely nothing!

Myth: You need to know all the skills before going into a Hackathon

Truth: You can pick up new skills and still manage to win or build something amazing and also contribute to open source

There are so many technical mentors, experts in all domains, you can think of, at these Hackathons who are exclusively brought into these Hackathons to help you. They might host sessions or walk around in these Hackathons to help you, to integrate something or help fix a bug. If you are using a certain API or getting stuck, its useful if that company has representatives at the Hackathon and you can ask them about the errors in the APIs. If you dont know a thing, you can absolutely make use of them to point you to resources and help you get started with already predefined frameworks or reusable code which can be directly applicable to your project. You can always find a teammate to join your team, with knowledge in that particular skill, incase if you lack a particular skill. Worst case, there is Google and Stack Overflow, if there is nobody to help and you are absolutely stuck and almost every error you see, somebody in this world would have absolutely faced in and would have posted the solution online. You need to have the patience to find it. Also if you have learnt programming in a particular language, most other languages share the same logic or data structures, just the syntaxes might be a bit different, which shouldn’t be difficult at all to pick up.

My first Hackathon app

I remember, in my first Hackathon, going in, I had 0 experience in app dev but by the end of it, I was able to build a phone app, which went on to acquire 50K users by picking up skills and also talking to mentors, when I got stuck. So dont be worried about how to get started at Hackathons, start somewhere.

Myths: You need to have a team before going to a Hackathon. You can only hack with your friends or go to Hackathons, only if your friends are going.

Truth: You can absolutely go alone. You will meet ton of people, who came to the Hackathon, solo too. This is a great opportunity to meet new people, make new friends who share the same passion as you in causes you are passionate about and eventually you can form a team with them and take part in the competition. It is also perfectly ok to take part alone.

There would be Idea Jams or pitch sessions, which is basically the opportunity to network and pitch your idea to the other contestants at the Hackathon to get them to join your team and find teammates. You donot have to pitch, you can simply join other people’s teams too. These pitch sessions are a great place to brainstorm and refine your idea and get early feedback on what people think about the idea and what are possible loopholes and strong points about it. Dont be shy about your idea or feel like other people might steal it, feel free to talk about it in a very open way. It might happen that sometimes people might not join your team but be open to brainstorming with you or listening to your idea to see if they have a passion fit with your project. Make sure, you hear everyone’s ideas and talk to everybody before joining a project, as there are ton of amazing ideas to hack on. Also, just because you said yes to an idea, it doesnt mean you cannot improvise or change an idea. Often people pivot or something else comes up, so absolutely focus on picking a great team.

Myth: Hackathons are only for coders.

Truth: Program Managers, Designers, Marketing folks, UI/UX, Story Telling anf Content writers, domain knowledge experts are equally important to your team.

When pitching ideas, make sure you are aware of what skills you need to accomplish your idea and look for people, with those skills. It could be front end, back end, full stack, Program Managers, Designers, Marketing Folks etc. Make sure, your team encompasses people with all these skills because at the end of the day, presentation of your product is as important as building your product. Your idea can also pivot but hiring a world class diverse team will have great payoffs, incase if you wish to continue pursuing your idea after the Hackathon as Hackathons are breeding grounds for upcoming startups and open source contributions.

Myth: You need to have an idea to go to a Hackathon

Truth: You can join teams to build their idea out

You can always brainstorm new ideas, if incase you formed a team but none of you have ideas. The best ideas come from thinking about what are you everyday problems in life and how they can be solved through tech. Often these Hackathons have a dedicated chat room like a slack channel or Facebook Page, where you can introduce yourself and your skillset and start listing your idea or find teams or ideas ahead in time, before going to the Hackathon. Generally, look at the Hackathon site for these links. Almost all my Hackathons, I went alone and pitched my idea and hired people to join my team or joined someone’s team and brainstormed to add features to the team.

Most Hackathons would let you join multiple teams but however for the constraint of time and to make a real contribution, its best to stick to one.

Hack for Healthcare team

Myth: You shouldn’t choose a difficult idea

Truth: Pick something, you really want to build right right now. Something you are passionate about. It doesnt matter if its difficult. If you feel that there is a need for it, probably a few million people feel the same way. Your product can change millions of lives. Dont let anyone talk you out of your idea.

I remember, at one of my Hackathons, a mentor told me that my idea looked like a thesis project. Well, I picked teammates who still believed in my idea and encouraged me to pursue it, irrespective of whatever and we built it in 36 hours and we won and we had the most amount of audience at the Science Fair at the MIT Media Lab and also got invited to a film festival. How cool is that?

I personally dont believe any idea is impossible. However I do believe in constraining the problem to a certain use case to show a proof of concept if you think the idea is too broad to demo or to be built out in the time constraints of the Hackathon. The Hackathons are all about showing potential and innovating and generally if you break down a problem into simple enough parts, you would be able to find a solution to each parts and you can do a bottom up approach to solve a big problem, think Dynamic Programming.

Its absolutely ok to have a Backup plan and backtracking from building certain features and dropping certain functionality if there is no progress or there are roadblocks and there isnt enough time to get them ready. Its more important to have a simple solution working for the Minimal Viable Product (MVP) and have it thoroughly tested as compared to having a product which is jack of all trades but Master of none. Its very very important to act as a Program Manager or get a Program Manager on board, who can do bi-hourly check ins to track progress and see if anybody is stuck on anything and being able to put resources to get it fixed. Dont stay stuck while at the Hackathon, seek help immediately at the Hackathon, due to time constraints.

Often choosing a difficult idea can pay off in grand scheme of things, as many wouldnt attempt to go down that path and you can continue working on that project as an open source project or a startup idea after the Hackathon and often if you solved a complex problem, you are likely to get immediate attention. Example — When we built FiB, a Fake News detecting Chrome extension, I was the first in the Industry to get AI solving Fake News problem in the real world for the first time in the Industry and that went on to bring a revolution and be featured on more than 90% of the News Publications worldwide.

Myth: You must be coding the entire duration, you are at the Hackathon

Truth: Walk around, talk to other people, go learn about other projects and what others are building. Learn new skills in sessions hosted at the Hackathons. Get sleep, if you need to.

Think of Hackathons as a relay race. Its a teamwork. You can absolutely take turns to code and also get some rest. Remember, it doesnt help if you are burned out for you to keep your innovative juices flowing. Too many Hackathons have fun social activities to take part in. If you feel exhausted or feel like you are getting stuck, absolutely take a break and get some fresh air if you need. Get a snack. Get some food. Step away and then resume after sometime.

Go talk to the Sponsors to learn more about their category prizes? Network, these are people who work in companies, you probably wanna work for at some point. Maybe add them on LinkedIn or let them give you useful tips about your Hackathon project. Let them see your project and I am sure, they will remember your project while judging for Categories. Go talk to Mentors. Get a second pair of opinion on your projects. Since, some mentors are judging certain categories, if they are judging a particular category you are interested in, they might give you feedback on how aligned it is, to that category or mission statement and if there are APIs, that company has built, that can fit your use-case scenario.

If you end up going to a different College Campus for a Hackathon, Hackathons are also great opportunities to take a tour of the University Campuses and learn more about the culture of different Campuses. However, while you have fun and do tours and take rest, make sure, you finish the work assigned to you and do your part because at the end of the day, Hackathons are a team effort.

Myths: Mentality like If I dont win, its not with it. Or, I dont think, we can win because everyone else is too good.

Truth: Hackathons are rarely about who wins and everything about experience. You get to learn new skills, work on new challenges, solve problems of the world, meet passionate people, get to put it on your resume. There are career fairs. what not to love?

Many Hackathons have tons of sponsors who are also hiring. If they find a cool project you built, you might actually get an interview call from that company. Plus you get to contribute to the open source company and can get ton of recognition in the world, if you build something worth it. I got invited by the Forbes team to go to the Forbes 30 Under 30 Conference for a Hackathon project. So you never know, what is around the corner? Focus on building a world class project and everything would follow.

Myths: If your teammate is too smart, he/she will figure everything out. I dont need to do anything. Or feeling like I cannot leave if I want to and is stuck there for 36 hours.

Truth: If a team has everyone with less knowledge but everyone puts in the same effort, they are more likely to win than a team who has one smart person but everyone else is reliant on that one person and has given up.

Make sure, if you are blocked, you step away or get help and then resume working on your Hackathon project. If something is assigned to you that you dont like, ask your team if you can take on some other responsibility or get someone else to help you. Giving up on your team, takes the morale down of everyone else involved, no matter how good they are. Often, I had made the most progress in last 3 hours of the Hackathon and went on to win it, so please dont give up till the end. However, if there is an emergency and you need to leave, please note, that you are not stuck there for the entire duration.

Myths: I shouldnt pair with First time hackers because they are inexperienced. If they donot have experience winning before, I shouldn’t pick them.

Truth: You will be surprised when you pick First time hackers. Look at Common projects, skills, how much time, they can contribute during the Hackathon and pay a lot of attention to their willingness to learn and wear multiple hats.

Most of the Hackathons I have won, consisted of first time Hackers who were super proactive and went to great lengths to pick a new skill and completely learn them and implement them to the projects, so I have never regretted picking a first time Hacker. Pay a lot of attention to people you are taking on your team, when you initially interact with them. If you throw something into the conversation like “I have other commitments during the Hackathon. I might leave etc”, its not going to look pretty by the end of it. You can count on it that they are not going to be of much use, irrespective of what skills they have. Make sure, you hire a world class team and be proactive to learn with them and jump in, to help them. Focus on the impact and learning and continue to motivate your team to go for more.

Myths: I need to implement everything from Scratch

Truth: Make sure, you break down your problem into a much granular level and search for APIs, which can do the work.

Hackathons are less about making production level code and more about having a quick MVP. There are so many APIs out there which do the work for smaller use case scenarios. You can solve a bigger problem by joining a bunch of APIs together, good enough to get work done or give up frameworks from Github, to help you get started. No matter, how new a problem is, its almost certain someone or the other might have worked on the variation of that problem, which can be applicable as a solution to this problem with a little bit of tweaks. Make sure, you are quick on finding these APIs or code blocks to save time and avoid reinventing the wheel.

Myths: You can copy paste an entire project of Github and win.

Truth: Hackathons give much more weight-age to innovations and solutions that hasnt been seen before. Than a fully functional same old thing.

Hackathons are something you are doing outside your day job or school work. Focus on learning and innovating and solving real world problems which you are passionate about. Otherwise this experience is really not worth it.

Myths: You need to have a fully functional product by the end of the Hackathon

Truth: Often many Hackathons focussed on Business or Startups, just ask for a proof of concept, so making mockups to showcase your idea is fine too.

Put a lot of focus on presentation to the judges, make a pitch deck if you can. Learn more about Pitching here —

Put some energy in pitching and making sure, you have tested your demo use case scenarios enough before you pitch. Being able to showcase your proof of concept is everything. Remember, marketing and storytelling plays a huge deal in Hackathons.

Flowchart explaining how to Hackathon

Here are some of the tips, to winning a Hackathon, as my experience as a Judge and mentor at several Hackathons -

  1. Focus on the Innovation, Impact and Originality aspect of the Project.
  2. Showcase all the efforts you were able to make, technology wise in this Hackathon. If you didnt know a skill but picked it up while building at this hackathon, you get a lot of positive points.
  3. Built some working demo. Even if you get only one user scenario working. Some demo is better than no demo.
  4. If you are submitting online, lets say on Devpost or other submission site, make sure, you pay a lot of attention to the description you fill in and building a Logo.
  5. Pay attention to the judges while demoing if this Hackathon is in person. Stand up from your chair. Answer what they are asking. Provide clarity and future scenarios.
  6. Choose teammates wisely and make sure all your teammates are present when you demo.
  7. Lastly take risks, in terms of projects but know when to backtrack.

If you wish to learn more about Hackathons and see example of projects, make sure to check out my site —