How to do Hackathons

Spencer Fricke
Oct 4, 2017 · 5 min read

My freshmen spring semester of college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I was super fortunate that some amazing people helped throw together the original MadHacks. I had no idea what to expect and all I remember was getting home Sunday night and thinking “are there more of these?!”. Next thing you know I found out about MLH and 20+ hackathons later, I am pretty sure I have acquired the “hackathon guy” status around campus. With this, I have been asked a lot about hackathons from people who are in the position of never attending one. This is my quick guide to doing hackathons, which you should take with a grain of salt, as with any advice you find on a Medium post.


Let’s get out some common Myths about hackathons I get asked about a lot.

You can’t sleep during a hackathon

I tell people rule #1 is “listen to your body”. You are an adult, if you feel tired and want to take a nap, go ahead. I will admit to people that I have a unique joy of trying to stay up all 36 hours if possible, but I am already “crazy” for going to so many hackathons. Just let your body decide and you will be perfectly fine.

I don’t really know how to program

My first hack was an Ionic mobile web app which I had zero experience with prior. It consisted of the To-Do list straight from the AngularJS demos, a hardcoded Google Maps button, and a broken Firebase chat section. Know what? I learned so much about Angular, Ionic, and NodeJS that with some more work after; I was able to get an internship 3 months later working on exactly that stuff. If you want to learn how to do Android apps for example, it’s going to take like 25 hours to get to a stable point, why not spend it at a hackathon when you are surrounded by so many people who can help you to learn. Programming is about learning and hacking literally means “getting things to work”. It’s not an exam and failure here results into future success in the real world.

I don’t have an idea

Well that’s two of us! Of the 20+ hackathons, I have gone in to a few with an idea in mind; sometimes I completely ditched it last second. Just remember you don’t need to create a start-up idea, a hackathon is about hacking and having fun, the idea is just a small part of it all. Also with all the different tools and resources available, an idea is actually easy to formulate at the hackathon.

I shouldn’t apply if I don’t know if can go

I advise people to apply if you think you may want to go. First off, you might not get accepted (some hackathons are so large that not everyone can attend). More importantly if you don’t apply and decide to go later it will be too late. My only disclaimer is PLEASE let the hackathon know if you get accepted and you know you are not going to go. The organizers are doing a million things and just be a mature adult and RSVP correctly.

Things To do

Here are some general tips on things you should try

Hack with people you enjoy

You are going to spend 24–36 hours with these people, so make sure you can handle them. Sometimes it’s easy finding friends you know are going and pairing up with them. I have had incredible times meeting random people and hacking with them as well. Realize that easily half the people at a hackathon are looking for a team as well. Get on the hackathon slack page, social media, team-finding event, or even just say “hey” to that random person in front of you at registration. Meeting new people is a skill that you need in life, might as well practice at a hackathon.

Hack next to fun people

I always say the people you hack next to can make a hackathon even more fun. If you decide to go the isolated team room route, that’s fine. I do challenge you to be open to meeting the people next to you and watch them grow their project over the weekend and get to know them as well.

Ask questions

A great feature of a hackathon is being surrounded by so many smart people, sometime even the people who have created the tools you are using. The worst thing to do when you are stuck on getting something to compile or work for an hour is to not seek help. Always try yourself first, but when your attempts keep failing and a Google search didn’t help, then start asking away.

Do your homework ahead of time

I like to never think of school during the hackathon, this means you will need to wisely work school around. If you are traveling to the hackathon, take that time to study or do homework on the way there. Try to get ahead of homework during the week of the hackathon. Worst case, set aside a few hours during the hackathon where you plan to stop and do your homework.

Go to workshops and talks

My biggest regret is I have passed on some great talks, workshops, events, etc. at hackathons because I was too worried about getting the hack to work or done on time. Learn from me and if an event looks fun or cool, attend it, worse case you can just walk out and get back to hacking.

Have Fun

Totally cliché, I know, but seriously, hackathons are supposed to be fun. If you don’t come out Sunday having some fun they you messed something up along the way.

Things NOT To Do

Avoid these few things to have an pleasant experience

Assume your idea will win

I cannot stress this enough!!! The #1 way to have a crappy time is to assume you are going to win a prize and then not end up winning. It’s a subjective judging process and it will never be perfect, but so is life. How is someone suppose to compare a VR hack to an Android Hack to someone who rebuilt the gcc compiler in Minecraft with redstone logic… you can’t. Aiming for a goal/prize to win is a totally important thing to drive your idea, but just have a “If I win, O YA!… if not, so what” attitude or else you will drive both yourself and those around you mad.

Over eat

Its ok, I have done it, so have other people. You are presented with an endless amount of amazing food and you have been up for 30 hours straight. Just realize you still need to make it through the next day and this really goes back to rule #1 of “listen to your body”.

Give up and leave early

I know what it is like to get to the first night and hit that major roadblock. It can sometimes feel like it’s hopeless to continue hacking. Welcome to the real world, things like this happen, but it’s how you are able to rebound. Your idea is a complete bust, so what; change up the idea or quick start a new one. You have already committed so many hours into the hackathons and if you quit a hackathon early I can only entail what that means for future projects that have more importance.

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