Why am I so into Startup Weekend and Hackathons?

Thoughts and learnings from crazily participating in Startup Weekend and Hackathons as a young designer

The story began with this belief

A successful design should lead to a successful product; a successful product is at the intersection of design, technology, business, and human. A successful design can only be called “successful” when it is implemented successfully. Knowing how to collaborate with engineers, and implement the design successfully, is extremely crucial for designers. Especially, as product designers, we are solving real problems for real people.

The desire of working with engineers

Came out of school without any working experience, not to mention the experience of implementing the design, I felt the hunger of learning to work with engineers, implement the design and ship successful products. Thus, I have been crazily looking for those opportunities. Like go to some engineers’ groups, kindly asking:

“Hi, I am Nina, a product designer. If there is anyone looking for any design help, please let me know. I am always crazily looking for side projects, and also I’m more than happy to grab a coffee and chat about product or design :)”

I also enjoyed chatting with my engineer friends, from which I am trying to learn more about their ways of thinking, their opinions towards products and design, their working styles and personalities etc.

“Go to the places where engineers are, go to the places where you will be crazily in need. Talk to people who are different from you, help people who are in need of you…”

There comes Startup Weekend and Hackathons.

It’s far beyond working with engineers

The things I can get in 24–48 hours is definitely far beyond working with engineers. Some of my learnings so far:

Working with People

The ability to join or form a team, a good team;

The ability to lead the team, and manage the project;

The ability to work with people who you never worked together before;

The ability to speak out, to express ideas, opinions, and feelings clearly, concisely, and get to the point;

The ability to listen, empathize and understand people with different cultures and backgrounds, who are largely different from you;

The ability to embrace different opinions and conflicts, and deal with them in a smart way, push the team goes forward if it ever stuck at any point;

Thinking about Product

The ability to come up with good ideas;

The ability to brainstorm, scale, evaluate ideas and solutions efficiently;

The ability to prioritize and focus on the most important things;

The ability to take full considerations of different aspects of a product;

Learning by Doing

The ability to accept new things;

The ability to learn new things efficiently, know what and how to learn;

The ability to execute the learnings efficiently;

The ability to ask for help from the outside;


The ability to come up with different design solutions;

The ability to make solid design decisions efficiently;

The ability to mockup a high-fidelity design solution efficiently;

The ability to evaluate and iterate based on different channels of feedbacks;

People People People

It is always the people that matters more than anything else. I am so lucky to meet with so many awesome friends from those startup weekend and hackathons. We have been helping each other on several projects, and I have learned so much. Thank you so much, Startup Weekend and Hackathons friends.


If you are having fun, you are learning something gradually even without knowing it.

A little bit difference between Startup Weekend and Hackathons

It is obvious that Startup Weekend is about “Startup”. Generally, the judging criteria has four parts (as posted in UP Global):

1. Business Model;
2. Customer Validation;
3. Technical — Execution;
4. Design — Execution

For Hackathons, technical execution is at the first place, then the idea.

As a designer, I prefer Startup Weekend. For one thing, I like the idea that it focuses on the product. I really want to expose myself to different aspects of a product, but not only just the interface. I also enjoy the presentation part — it is actually exactly a Startup pitch. I value Storytelling a lot and have been learning it gradually. I learned how to tell a compelling story from presenting and also watching others presenting.

While, if your only goal is to find the opportunity to work with engineers and come out something that is real in a short time, choose hackathons. I have had some bad experience — when I was working on one hackathon project as designer and half front-end developer, the project was complex, time was limited, and I was also not that good at front-end at that time, I was not able to successfully implement the design, and I felt so bad for the end result.

My Weekends Stories

Startup Weekend Women @Seattle


All your favorite fashion brands, perfectly fitted to you.

The first Startup Weekend in my life. We won the 3rd place, woo hoo!

It was the first time that I worked so intensely with people from so diverse backgrounds. I was a little bit surprised by the different opinions people had towards the same question. Also, sometimes, how narrow our own mind could be.

Business people tend to look for how big the business opportunities can be for an idea or a problem;
Designers, we more focus on the problem, and the people we want to help;
Engineers, sometimes tend to see what kind of tools we have, and then decide what kind of problem we want to solve.

No one is either perfect or wrong, that’s what a team for. And it is very helpful for each one to look at a problem from different perspectives.

Anyways, we worked so well as a team, even beyond our expectations.

Startup Weekend Immigration @SF


Your better path, Your better care

My second Startup Weekend, we won the Honorable Mention (4th place), not bad :)

I learned how to “fight”, the most valuable lesson in this Startup Weekend. We had many conflicts and disagreements, and a lot of time, just stuck there. I am such kind of person that prefer speaking out rather than being silent. But this time, I have to find solid, considerable, and different validations to support my opinions, and educate others who are unfamiliar with user experience or product design in a smart, efficient, and comfortable.

They told me they were so glad that I “fight” so hard :)

Product Hunt Hackathon

Genius Hunt

Discover cool new people every day.

Seating next to the engineer, watching him coding, and helping him implement the design in real-time — so much fun! My engineer friend also taught me the way he codes.

Capital One People & Money Hackathon

Yeah, it is the hackathon that I had the bad experience. While, also from this hackathon, I realized that learning more about the technical part is so valuable.

Actually, the main reason I wanted to attend this hackathon was that I was trying to learn more about finance products, as well as the problems, challenges, and design opportunities in this space. The traditional financial industry is broken, and there are a lot we can do to utilize design and technology to make the big revolution. As I am not a finance expert for myself, and actually just a newbie, I did a lot of research, and also talked to some experts in this hackathon — incredible learnings! I have been paying much attention to finance startups from then on.

Apple Watch Hackathon

It was my first time watching engineer implement the design in Xcode and Swift. I started to fall in love with Xcode, and believe there will be a lot of potentials for designers to learn and use Xcode. Knowing how the UI is implemented will be very helpful for designers. We even can just use Xcode as a prototyping tool.

I was also having fun with some online hackathons while I feel it is less efficient than offline hackathons.

How to be win-win with engineers

Take fully considerations of different use cases, especially some edge cases
Learn and understand technical constraints
Show the mockups earlier, show it visually and dynamically
Try the best and different ways to express the idea efficiently
Test and give build feedbacks timely

Stay Tuned

I am a bit inactive in Startup Weekend and Hackathons these days. I realized what I don’t know, what I need to know more, and what I need to do more. I feel I have to get more inputs.

I have been spending more time on reading, reading broadly, in order to expand my own library, and get different perspectives, also, to learn new skills through some small projects.

While, I am always willing to chat about product and design or anything else, and would love to work on some exciting side-projects. Please let me know if you ever need any design help, or just wanted to grab a coffee and exchange life stories :) Shoot me a message weizhuxiaona@gmail.com.