Hackathon-ing as a Non-Developer

Tips from a first-timer that hopefully demystify, educate, and inspire

I was not a developer (or a designer) when I signed up for my first hackathon. In fact, the people I met kept asking what I did for a day job and I couldn’t find a concise way to say I was a consultant but had already quit my job and was seeking product opportunities at startups and learning development. Anyways, I hope to shed light on what one does and how one adds value as a non-developer at a hackathon and help to reduce any anxiety or uncertainty holding you back.

Be ready with ideas or find someone who is

You’re at a hackathon for christ’s sake. It’s all about execution and not about spending time you don’t have doing market or user research. Come in with some ideas, or if you’re like me, come up with ideas on the fly based on everyday pain points. If you play more beta, it is absolutely ok to not have ideas and join a person/team that does.

Figure out your role on the team

This was probably my second biggest aha. So I went into the experience assuming I’d be pretty useless because I couldn’t design or develop. I pretty much thought I’d just get in the way and have many stfu moments. Turns out, there is a lot of stuff that goes into building products that even designers and developers need help with, including:

As a note, unless there’s an explicit team leader, there’s no one telling you what you should or could be doing. You need to figure out what you can do and what needs to be done and play in the center of the Venn diagram. Or you can play project manager and run the show. Just don’t sit there useless or idle — there is ALWAYS something that needs doing.

Shit changes. Quickly. Shit goes wrong. Often

What you set out to build in the beginning — that grand, shining vision — most likely will have changed 5-10 times by the deadline. In the real world, you have more time to hash out ideas, sleep on it, and run it by multiple people. At hackathons, the time you spend deciding what you want to build and how to build it cuts into time that could be spent actually building it. So, some obstacles you should be prepared to deal with:

Shit, I learned a ton in 24 hours. And unexpectedly walked away with a trophy and a friend ☺

But my whole reason behind participating was that startups don’t take people who have no experience for test runs. The exchange usually goes like: you’ve never shipped a product? Dude, I’m not gonna place life/death of my startup on your lack of experience. No matter how you good you think (or know) you are, show me proof. (Actually the real exchange happens in the recruiter/hiring manager’s head and you just get dead silence.)

So, this hackathon was the first of my many steps. Hackathons seem way more scary written out like this. Learning while doing is infinitely easier than trying to learn by reading through this, I swear. So sign up for a hackathon and go at it yourself!




@Penn/@Wharton alum from Cali. Mobile, startups, finance, traveling, skiing. Quit consulting to jump into @StartupInst so we'll see how that goes :)

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Xin Wang

@Penn/@Wharton alum from Cali. Mobile, startups, finance, traveling, skiing. Quit consulting to jump into @StartupInst so we'll see how that goes :)