Have Fun at Hackathons

3 tips and expectations for investing in yourself

You can win huge cash prizes by exploiting hackathons—and that’s not even hard—but the way to maximize your return on time isn’t a trick at all: meet new people, have fun, and maybe ship a product. When I go to a hackathon I always dive head-first into the most ambitious dream imaginable and try to turn it into an experience worth sharing. I always have fun whether or not I win any prizes.

What’s a “hack-athon?” These special events have exploded in popularity within the last year. They are free competitions held on the campus of a university or tech company, last just 24-48 hours, and are traditionally open only to college students. Hackathons are known for facilitating the development of fast-paced projects that draw the attention of major tech companies, many of which provide mentorship, food, and cash prizes.

“A notable example of a hackathon ‘hack,’ GroupMe is a group messaging app that was acquired by Skype for over $50 million.” — Dave Fontenot, superstar organizer of MHacks

Have fun at hackathons! Here’s how you can give it a shot and what I think you should look for. I hope that you’ll find my thoughts useful whether or not you’ve ever attended a hackathon. And to those of us that have ever been part of organizing one, please follow PennApps in creating safe and organized spaces that balance attendees of different genders, backgrounds, strengths, and tastes. PennApps is the chillest hackathon in existence: casual mentorship and an expo are definitely the way to go.

1. Hang as a Team and Meet New People

“We came up with this on the way here.”
— The Homework Machine team’s final pitch,
First-Place, PennApps Spring 2014

Start planning your hackathon adventure by finding teammates. No explicit roles are required! Your team ought to be agile and casual. Remember that a hackathon is a hangout and you need to be able to get along with your teammates. And don’t be afraid to mix it up a few times until you find the right group of friends to go to hackathons with.

Once you’re at the hackathon and well into work, take turns leaving the table for 10 minutes at a time. I found that my team works best when we take breaks alone, with each other, and with people that we meet. Taking short walks also gives you the opportunity to grow your professional network by making friends from faraway places and scoping out the hacks you’re competing with. It’s also reassuring to see that no one else has all their stuff together, either.

If you like meeting new people and aren’t afraid to talk about yourself, I recommend ordering some personal business cards from Vistaprint. I used to feel uncomfortable handing these out but now realize that business cards are how people outside of college keep track of names. My cards say, “Theo Pak, mail@theopak.com, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Class of 2015, Computer Science.”

2. Have Fun and Try to Get Some Sleep

“The pictures on ChallengePost have been pretty clutch
this year. I’m super tired and this is hard.”
—PennApps Spring 2014 Judge/Organizer

Students from my college are really good at hackathons because we already know how to work 48 hours without showering. (I only wish that Rensselaer administrators were able to allocate funds like PennApps does to keep the bathrooms stocked with disposable toothbrushes and mouthwash for all the hackers.) But, take it from me, a hackathon isn’t a contest to see who can be the least healthy and you owe it to yourself to get enough sleep that you can enjoy the experience!

My team relies on traditions to help maintain our sanity. Trevor always brings glassware, a burr grinder, and home-roasted coffee beans to brew by aeropress or pourover. Dan always takes a quiet moment to polish the backend services alone before being the last to take a nap. Derek and I have this thing going where whenever there’s a problem I freak out and he hums jazz until the code magically builds with zero errors again.

The worst mistake you can make at a hackathon is trying to work around-the-clock. Don’t do that! It’s not fun to try! Instead, leave your laptop behind when you go looking for food. If you want to take a shower then ask around until you find locals willing to let you into their dorm building. Ask the hackathon sponsors and mentors for their perspective on your hack, grab a bunch of their free swag, and then try to start a personal conversation. Maybe ask for a job. Remember that hackathon organizers are probably students, too, and they’re even more tired than you are.

I don’t usually give away these numbers… but since I want to encourage you to try a hackathon, here’s my estimated breakdown of how I spend the 36-hour work period at PennApps Spring 2014 where my team placed among the top 10 hacks: 5 cumulative hours sleeping; 6 cumulative hours walking around, taking pictures, and hanging out; and 25 cumulative hours hacking while eating the never-ending river of free food.

3. Everything is a Product: Try to Ship It

TrumpYourFriends.com — We’re preparing to ship apps to the App Store and Google Play Store. (This is much harder than it sounds.)

The most important topic you can discuss as a team going to a hackathon, in my opinion, is what your individual goals are and how you can help each other achieve them. Are you trying to learn a new technology? Are you only interested in winning prizes? Do you want to try out an idea that may start your company?

Achieve the goals that your team has by looking at your hack from the outside, or as I recommend, as a product that users can interact with. It doesn’t matter whether you are interested in describing your hack as a product or if you think it would be impossible to sell: I’m convinced that I can provide a better experience to anyone that uses anything if I apply the perspective of a user interacting with a product.

When you finally leave the hackathon and get hours of glorious, glorious sleep, don’t put your hack away until you ask a final question: What can we ship? You may not want to show your hack to the world. That’s fine. But that doesn’t mean that you have nothing to show at all!

Ship your own personal brand. Add your new friends on facebook and have nice conversations. Incorporate your hackathon traditions into your everyday routine. Whatever you do at a hackathon and however you and your friends decide to spend your time, I urge you to go to every event you can.

Theo Pak is a junior at Rensselaer, where he studies Computer Science, does research at the Smart Lighting ERC, and presides over the Embedded Hardware Club. He participated at the PennApps Spring 2014 hackathon with RPI students Daniel Bulger, Trevor Phillippi, and Derek Schultz. Their entry, a mobile app called Trump, gained recognition as a top-10 hack and will ship to the App Store and Google Play Store soon.