The Beginner’s Guide to an Online Hackathon

You’ve just registered for your first ever hackathon. Your travel information is confirmed, you booked your time off work/school, and now you’re so hyped! Well, I hate to break it to you, but 2020 has other plans. Due to COVID-19, the hackathon is going to be hosted online instead.

Although traditional hackathons are some of the most exciting environments to learn cool things and to meet new people, online hackathons still have plenty to offer. My name is Tailai and I’m a developer for the technology team at The GoldenHack. This guide will give you an overview of what to expect at an online hackathon, how to make the most of it, and introduce you to some insights along the way!

Firstly, we must answer an important question:

What even is a hackathon?

· Hackathon (noun)

o A hackathon is a design sprint-like event; often, in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, domain experts, and others collaborate intensively on software projects. (Dictionary.com, 2020)

The formal definition is comprehensive, but I like thinking of hackathons as spaces where passionate people come together to learn by doing. The GoldenHack does this by bringing together Business, Technology and Design students and letting their imaginations run wild. For 24 hours, students innovate by building tech solutions for real world problems, fueling the spirit of entrepreneurship.

Cool, now you understand what a hackathon is. Let’s get into some logistics and finer details :D

What should I expect at an online hackathon?

Online hackathons typically follow a format like this:

1. Opening Ceremonies

o Usually hosted on Twitch.tv or YouTube Live, opening ceremonies are when you’ll hear all the details specific to your hackathon. Organizers will talk about the weekend’s schedule, submission process, the amazing sponsors that make the event happen, and maybe the hackathon’s theme (if applicable).

2. Hacking Time (Workshops, Activities, and Hacking)

a. Workshops

These can be hosted by a sponsor or hackathon representatives, usually earlier on during hacking time. Workshops either exist to teach the fundamentals of hackathon skills or introduce cool new tech to work with. At the GoldenHack, topics covered will include Project ideation, Web Development, UX Design, Startup Pitching, AR/VR, and much more!

b. Activities

Traditional Hackathons have some pretty iconic activities (cup stacking, !Light, etc.). Not being able to interact in person puts some restrictions on the team building games, but you can still expect lots of fun stuff! Video games, online puzzles, and design challenges are great opportunities to bond with other hackers and to possibly win exclusive prizes/swag 😊

c. Hacking

The bulk of the weekend will be dedicated to hacking. During this time, you and your teammate(s) will be working on your very own hackathon project. You might have planned out your idea beforehand, or maybe you came up with something at the Project Ideation workshop. Either way, you now have 24 hours to build it out! The developers will grind away at countless bugs and technical difficulties, the designers will let their artistic juices flow, and the businesspeople will figure out how to pitch it all together. Your team should hang out in a discord server with some music, attend some workshops and activities, and maybe even get a Netflix Party going when you need a break. Hacking time is tiring and high-pressure, but it really brings people together and will be a great bonding experience!

3. Mentor Sessions

o Good hackathons always have plenty of mentors around. These awesome volunteers are usually experts in development, design, or business, and will do everything they can to drive your team forward. Be sure to ask them for insights/advice, help on hard bugs, or maybe just an interesting conversation! An online hackathon might have dedicated voice channels for mentor questions, or maybe even a ticketing system that lets you request mentors.

4. Submissions and Judging

o Towards the end of the hacking period, your team should start getting ready for submissions. The businesspeople will need to start writing the team’s Devpost submission, and the rest of the team needs to record a short pitch video to showcase the project. After submission, there’s usually a couple hours where you can get some rest while the judges go through the submissions. You might need to stick around to answer questions, but if not, set 10 alarms and conk out until the closing ceremonies!

*Submission and Judging Processes vary by hackathon, so make sure to get these details at the opening ceremonies*

5. Closing Ceremonies

o Everyone is probably exhausted at this point, but excitement remains in the air. At closing ceremonies, the organizers will cap off the weekend and announce the hackathon winners! There will usually be live demoes, and potentially a few words from an MLH representative. Take this opportunity to pat yourself on the back for all the cool stuff you accomplished over the weekend!

6. Prizes and Swag!

o In the weeks after the hackathon, teams who submitted a project will be getting all the cool swag and t-shirts from the organizers and sponsors. Deck out your gear with stickers, make the most out of your prizes, and enjoy!

Sheesh, the hackathon weekend is action-packed. Here are some pointers on how to get the most out of it!

What are some tips on how to make the most out of an online hackathon?

1. Make a team ahead of time

Although many successful hackathon teams are formed on the spot, forming a team before the event amongst your friends or on the event social media saves a lot of time. It also gives more opportunities to brainstorm and to come up with ideas!

2. Figure out what you’re hoping to gain from the event

Do you want to learn a new technology? Do some preliminary research on it to avoid reading documentation on the night of.

Do you want to win a prize? Review the judging criteria and brainstorm how you and your team can pull it off!

3. Go to workshops and activities

The hosts and mentors who run these are volunteers who are truly passionate about what they do. Even if you’re an expert on the subject matter, reinforcing your fundamentals at an introductory workshop could be an eye-opening experience.

4. Take breaks :D

This might seem obvious, but its easier said than done. At a traditional hackathon, there’s plenty of stuff going around in the vicinity so you’re incentivized to move around. However, its easy to get engrossed in your work when its just you and your team in a virtual meeting. Remember to hydrate, stretch, and get mental resets to perform better!

I hope this short guide helps you out at an online hackathon! If you think I missed anything, or if you have extra questions, feel free to reach out to me via email: tailai.wang@thegoldenhack.ca. Enjoy your (socially distant) hackathon ❤

Tailai Wang

Full-Stack Developer and Hackathon Aficionado

The GoldenHack