Non-techies guide to Hackathons: How to succeed at one even if you can’t code

I arrived, scrawled my name “JOE” on a card, nervously looked at my phone and thought “what am I doing here, you idiot”.

I was at a hack-a-thon, I had 48 hours to make, market test and pitch an app, the only problem, I had no idea how to code.

What value could I bring to the table?

I was sure to be viewed as dead weight on any team I joined. Worse I didn’t want to be looked at as the slimy business guy.

After fumbling around I found a team, declared I’m useless and they responded by saying leave right now you dirty piece of trash. Just kidding.

My wonderful team had a high school senior interested in computer science, 24-year-old back-end developer, 40-year-old computer enthusiast, 30-year-old product manager and me a 24-year-old professional goofball.

The computer guys promised to show me a bit of code and the product manager assured me there are a lot of important things we non-coders could do.

We wound up focusing on a cryptocurrency project and the summer course I gave myself on the subject started to pay off big time. It turned out I had a bunch of valuable insights to give and more things I could do to help then time would allow.

After 48 hours of work and a presentation my team got shortlisted for a $20,000 prize. We waited nervously as the final awards were called out, but in the end we didn’t win the $20,000.

Oh well, can’t win them all right? We had a great time, become awesome friends and now have a cool project to add to our resumes.

Hackathons are the best

You bring a thought into reality over a weekend.

There have been very few things that are as satisfying to me as brainstorming with strangers and then turning that vision into action.

In the past, I’ve won and even launched a business from hackathons. I still can’t code my way out of a paper bag, but I’ve learned you need a lot more than code to create a product.

So on that note here are my recommendations and an intro to the wonderful world of hackathons for those dirty pieces of trash like me that can’t code.

What is a Hackathon

A typical hackathon: Photo by Music Tech Fest on flickr

Let’s start with the basics, what the hell is a hackathon?

Hackathons are competitions where teams form and try to create a product over the course of a couple of days. At the end of the competition your team presents the product to judges and the winners get prizes.

Hackathons can be focused on specific topics like education technology or companies can come and set up challenges for teams to compete in, like the best use of our API. Check out some of the challenges at the 2018 developer week hackathon in NY below.

Some of the challenges at the Developer Week 2018 hackathon in NY

Wait, what’s an API?

Something easily googleable and that you’ll learn a ton about if you go to a hackathon.

But you’re awesome so I’ll tell you right now

An API is an Application Programming Interface, in plain English it means you don’t have to leave your app or website to get info from another.

Do you want the weather displayed on your app or website? You would use an API to pull that data from a weather app and put it on yours.

It definitely helps to know a bit of a coding language or to have some experience with coding lingo but it’s not required. If you hear a word you don’t know ask about it.

Finding a Team

Some people come with teams already formed and others come alone and form teams.

It can be scary to approach a group of strangers and ask to join, but have no fear. People are nice and most will say yes or try to help you find a team you can join

Here’s an introduction line you can use if you’re really nervous:

You: Hi nice to meet you I’m “Samantha”.

Stranger: Hey, I’m Chris

You: I’m really excited to be at this hackathon. I have some experience in “the insurance” industry/field and I’m interested in “x, y, z” challenges. What is your team working on?

If they are working on a challenge you’re interested in or you vibe well with the team then ask if you can join.

If they say no, don’t be sad, being OK with rejection is the hallmark of greatness.

How to bring value as a non-techie

1) If your specialty isn’t coding, what is?

You have valuable input to give your team, if you play to your unique strengths. When looking for hackathons pick one that has a challenge in your area of interest or expertise.

Are you a garbage man? Look for an event with a challenge around trash reduction or optimizing truck routes. I can guarantee you’ll have valuable insights into that field that your teammates won’t.

You can find hackathons that focus on everything from environmental and social issue to finance and artificial intelligence. Pick one that suits you.

While you and your team are forming the potential solution to the problem is where you’ll come in handy first. You need more than code to build a great product, you also need an in-depth knowledge of its target customer.

2) Customer interviews

Who is your product being built for? Go talk to them.

You and your team think you found the right solution? Think again.

While the coders on the team are working on version one of the solution you can go out and see if the customers like your solution.

Send out surveys to friends who are in the industry or go ask people in person and see what their feedback is on the problem you’re trying to solve and the solution you’re working on

Use this feedback to refine your solution and be sure to include that you made these changes based on customer feedback. Judges love to hear that people other than your team members think your solution is a good idea

3) Test/sell the product

I think this is the most fun part.

You don’t have to know how to code to sell a product. Slide into your most charming, confident self and sell your product. It doesn’t matter that it’s not finished yet, you can sell people on an idea or early prototype. That’s what Kickstarter does

I have a group of friends that won a large fintech (financial technology) hackathon because some of their team went out to a local business and got preorders for the product they were making. If that’s not market validation, I don’t know what is.

Or you can test the product and show the results.

For the cryptocurrency challenge I talked about, my team and I made a cryptocurrency arbitrage app. Basically, it told you where to send your cryptocurrency to make money by taking advantage of different prices in the market.

Once we had a working version I spent most of the night using it to try and make money. I recorded any bugs and or anomalies I found and made notes about how we could make improve it.

The judges loved that we had results to show.

4) Make the presentation

At the end of the competition your team has to present what your product is and how it solves the problem.

This is much easier said than done.

Someone on your team should create and practice the 2–5 minute pitch for your product along with PowerPoint slide or drawings.

5) Get out of your comfort zone, be humble, and listen

Try new things, get out of your comfort zone, don’t be afraid to sound like an idiot and listen more then you talk.

What not to do at a Hackathon

Here are some common mistakes I’ve seen, particularly from non-coders, at hackathons

  1. Order people around

Nobody likes being told what to do. Don’t be the person yelling at your teammates to code an app especially if you can’t code.

Instead, ask for input and figure out with your team what every one thinks is the best way forward.

Extra points if you ask the quiet members of your team what they think. The quiet ones often have the best input, but for a variety of reasons keep their mouths shut.

2) Ask for things to be done in unreasonable time frames

Don’t yell at people to work faster, especially if you can’t do the work they are doing.

Instead, have discussions about how long everyone thinks each task will take them. If someone takes longer then they thought, don’t get angry, ask what you can do to help.

3) Sit around and doing nothing while your teammates are working

Get off your butt and do work, there’s always more customer interviews and or testing that could be done.

Can’t find customers and a prototype isn’t done?

Look up potential competitors in the market or if this product has been made before but don’t be on Facebook while other people are hard at work.

How to find Hackathons

Cool so now you want to go to one of these amazing events.

They are super easy to find, but sometimes have requirements like you need to be in high school or college. That’s ok though you should be able to find a couple you can go to, they are becoming more and more popular.

Just search “your city” or the closest major city to you and the word hackathon in google.

You can also use the search function on Eventbrite is google fails you.

Get out of your house and find a Hackathon

The moral of this post is you don’t have to know how to code to go to a hackathon. Yet you stand to gain valuables insights into a world you’re not familiar with if you do. So get out, go to one, and make something cool :)

There’s nothing better than making friends out of strangers and working together to make something greater than the sum of your parts


Thanks for the read it means a lot :)

Tell me about your hackathon experiences and or any questions you have about them below.

Twitter @JoeRobbins24 or say hi at JoeRobbins.blog


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