HackOn Foundation
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HackOn Foundation

Hackathon To-Dos 101

Insights from my experiences in the hackathon community

Source: Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Being a junior year Computer Science and Engineering student who is an active member of his regional student developer communities, one constantly used catchword that I often come across is “hackathon”. For those of you who may be new to the developer ecosystem,

A hackathon is essentially a development marathon that is designed to push developers past the limits of their creativity, imagination, and technical know-how to create innovative products and solutions.

In today’s date, the gamification of hackathons has led to the development of a “hackathon culture” that is constantly driving innovation and passion for technology and has become a global phenomenon.

In recent times, I have participated in as well as organized several hackathons, both physical and virtual. Some of the highlights of my experiences in the community have been winning the first-ever Microsoft Visual Studio Code Hackathon which was jointly organized by Microsoft and Major League Hacking and co-leading the first online hackathon organized by my university, Ami-Hacks 2020. In addition to that, I was also a guest speaker for a discussion on “Building Tech Communities” at HackJaipur, arguably India’s largest student-run virtual hackathon.

All my experiences have provided me with a lot of insights into the functioning of hackathons as well as the overall surrounding culture. As a result, I have curated a list of to-dos that I believe would benefit all in the hacker community.

1. Build a well-rounded team

Most hackathons allow teams of up to 4 or 5 members. While participants are not discouraged from entering solo, most hackathons are only 24–48 hours long and a larger team will allow you to cover a wider range of skills. This will make the overall development process significantly easier and quicker.

Source: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

While there is no fixed formula for building the perfect hackathon team, there are some roles I do recommend having in the team:

  • The Developer: A full-stack web or application developer is mandatory in every team as they will develop the necessary functionalities to ensure a working product.
  • The Emerging Tech Person: One of the primary aims of hackathons is to develop innovative products and solutions. Therefore, at least one participant experienced in ML, AI, Blockchain or Cloud platforms(or any other emerging tech) provides a huge advantage.
  • The Designer: A great user interface and experience will ensure that the end-user enjoys the product. That is why a UI/UX designer with front-end developer experience would be highly beneficial to the team.
  • The Big Picture Person: Even if the product developed is top-notch, it must display a vision in the grand scheme lest it should fail to make an impact. The big picture person will bring in a market-oriented perspective and ensure that the audience connects with the product.

2. Maintain proper communication and in-team leadership

When it comes to building the perfect team, finding the right members is only a part of the job. It is very necessary to build a relationship where you can comfortably communicate with your teammates so that you can work in a synchronized manner and create the best product possible. Do try to build a team with peers with who you regularly work first. If that is not possible, use the hackathon’s communication channels to connect and team up with other participants. It will also be crucial to mutually pick a team leader for the hackathon. There will occasionally be conflicts due to time pressure or even just difference of opinion. In such situations, a team leader who can objectively make decisions will be necessary.

3. Plan the product you intend to build

Before you start developing your product, it is very necessary to have at least a rudimentary plan of how you intend to develop your product. Most hackathons release their list of tracks and themes before it begins. Make use of this time to prepare a plausible plan. Do not over-fill your product with a high number of features that cannot be easily integrated or can make the overall product unstable. Rather than having a lot of mediocre components in your product, keep a few good ones and develop them to the best of your abilities.

Source: Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

4. Develop an MVP of your planned product

Once your product has been planned, your next job will be to develop a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). An MVP will feature the bare essentials required for a complete solution and implement a feedback mechanism for future development. You will want to develop the most perfect version of your conceptualized product but it will be difficult to do that within the given time constraints. Develop the MVP first and work on improving it thereon.

5. Experiment with vendor-sponsored and external software/APIs

In the majority of hackathons, you will find certain sponsors providing limited free access to some of their paid services to all the participants and also have a specialized track with prizes for using those. Please do try to experiment with and implement those software or APIs in your products. These are provided to make your work as hackers significantly easier. Apart from just the specialized tracks and prizes, it will help you expand your knowledge base and decrease a lot of the grunt work significantly.

6. Interact with the hackathon mentors

In every hackathon, there will be some mentors from the sponsors and the organizers to help the participants. Do get in touch with them to discuss your idea or in case any troubleshooting is required. These professional relationships that you initiate can be developed beyond the hackathon and may be beneficial in your career too. Another benefit of interacting with mentors is that often in online and multi-phase hackathons, mentors are involved in the judging process, which is expedited due to time constraints. Interacting with them beforehand may make your project memorable and benefit you there as well.

Source: Microsoft Learn Student Ambassadors

7. Network with your fellow hackers

A lot of participants do not realize that hackathons are some of the best hubs for networking with your peers. Hackathons always see highly hard-working, creative, passionate and innovative individuals come together to compete for a common prize. Connecting with these folks and learning from their experiences will benefit you long after the hackathon as well. Additionally, you might just end up building great friendships too.

8. Manage your health well

Amidst the pressure of the time constraints and urgency to complete the products, most of us forget to take care of our health during the hackathon. It is very necessary to have your meals at the right time and sleep for a while in between. Doing so will help you maintain your productivity throughout the hackathon and boost your creativity significantly. I will also recommend resting properly one day before the hackathon so that you begin with optimum efficiency.

9. Participate in the mini events

To help the hackers take a break and relax, organizers often host small, fun activities during the hackathon. These activities have nothing to do with the overall goal of the hackathon and are hosted just to get the hackers to let off a little steam and enjoy. They will prevent you from burning out in between and help you detox, so do make sure to participate in them.

10. Let your demo tell a story (and don’t leave it for the end)

The final presentation or demo is like the cherry on top of the cake. While it may seem insignificant, it can remarkably enhance the perception of the product. Let your demo tell the story of the inspiration behind your product and your vision for its future. Your product should not be a solution that has been developed just for the sake of the hackathon. The judges should be able to resonate with the core values behind your product. So do invest time and thought into it. A great demo will provide you with a significant boost when attempting to cross the finish line first.

Source: TechCrunch

11. Keep a growth mindset

It is crucial to understand that while winning a prize at a hackathon feels great, a prize is not the greatest thing that you take back. A hackathon, ideally, will push you to rocket past your limits of knowledge and creativity. You will learn more in a day than you probably would in a month because that is what the situation demands. You will get to connect with lots of new people and develop relations lasting far beyond the event. While it is great to enter the hackathon with a winning attitude, the one constant fact, whether you win or lose, is that your knowledge base and experience level will increase. So do embrace this fact and enter your next hackathon with a growth mindset. It will take you a lot farther than you may imagine!

12. Enjoy the hackathon experience

This is the most important point that I have to share. Enjoy your experiences participating in hackathons. Hackathons are an opportunity for you to work with some amazing and talented folks on ideas that are close to you. Development, in all honesty, is nothing less than an art and this is art for art’s sake, making it a very pure experience. So make sure that you fully immerse yourself in this experience and enjoy it to the best of your abilities.

Conclusion

These are some of the insights that I have had from my hackathon experiences. In truth, to become a truly great hacker, you will need to keep participating and gathering experience. However, I do believe that these insights will provide a push in the right direction at the very least. If you believe any of these points can be modified or improved or any new point can be added here, do mention in the responses below.

Thank you so much for reading and happy hacking!

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Aditya Oberai

Aditya Oberai

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DevRel🥑 @ Appwrite📍Hosts random community convos 🤓📍👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 MLH Coach | Twilio Champion | Gold Microsoft Student Ambassador | Google DSC Lead 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦