How to Win a Hackathon: Experiences from a Mobile Developer

I could never imagine how much hackathons would impact my life.

hack·a·thon: an event in which computer programmers and others in the field of software development, like graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software-related projects. Wikipedia

I attended my first hackathon almost 2 years ago, 3 months after I finished an iOS Development workshop. Here we are 2 years later, with more than 10 hackathons attended, 9 prizes won and a lot of things learned.

I didn’t start winning hackathons until after my 5th event, because it took time for me to build strategies, and I’m here today to share a little bit of what I learned the hard way.

Forming the Team

A good team is one of the most important strategies in a hackathon, because a good team will have a good idea and will work together on an awesome project.

While forming the team, you want tolook for a very broad skillset. There’s not a recipe in how to form a team, but since I’m a mobile developer, I always look for:

  • Designer: they are able to make your hack look professional. Besides the design, they are the ones who do the pitching.
  • Backend developer: Backend developers provide the core of your product, connecting the APIs and writing the algorithms
  • Mobile/Front End Developer: they are the bridge between the Backend and the Designer, taking care of the User Experience and connecting with the backend to provide a full product.

Usually, 4 people are more than good for a hackathon, so I’d have a designer, 2 backend devs or 2 mobiles devs.

I always hear that in order for you to win a hackathon, you need to form the team ahead of time.

BULLSHIT

Forming the team ahead is a nice to have, but in my personal experience, it doesn’t mean all that much, since working with people you don’t know allows for possibilities of new ideas. Hackathons aren’t a one night stand: after a weekend working together, you end up with really good friends, who can help you with new opportunities or connections.

Brainstorming the idea

Spend the first 3 hours on the idea: Pivoting happens A LOT in hackathons, so you wanna make sure you get your idea right in these first hours, so you don’t end up completely changing your idea at midnight.

  • Focus on a prize: read, re-read and read again about all the prizes and choose one to base your project on. Talk to the mentors and ask them what they are really seeking for the hackathon.
  • Find a cool API: this may sound sketchy, but API’S WIN HACKATHONS. Why? Because interesting/cool API’s provide the WOW moment in your presentation that differentiates your idea from all the other groups.
In People and Money Hackathon, me and my group found a Personality API from Cambridge that gives us Personal Traits of the user based on the Facebook profile. To win, we decided to mix that with Stocks and we built a solution that matches stock options based on the user’s personality.
  • Find the platform: based on your group’s knowledge, do you want to build a website or an app?
  • MVP: Plan the main features of your app first, without many features

Start Hacking

After everybody is synced, it’s time to start hacking!

Group Management

Your group is all next to each other, but everybody is on their headphones fully focused, so for you to have a good group management, you need to have a chat platform, where everybody can post links, assets or questions.

One platform in particular, Slack, is a savior and it’s really awesome for hackathons due to the simplicity of the setup.

Another key thing in group management is knowing what everybody is currently working on and splitting tasks, so you’re not stuck for an hour waiting for somebody to finish something.

Trello is really simple to use and it keeps everything organized — if I need something from the designer, I just add it to his/her task list.

Have a group meeting every hour, so everybody is in sync with the idea and is aware of the time. This way, decisions like having a new feature or pivoting a page can be done in the smartest way possible. These quick meetings also provide 15 minutes of rest, which is essential for your productivity.

Sleep

Sleeping in hackathons depends on each person: I’m a die-hard and if I sleep in a hackathon, it’s only up to an hour. How can I stay awake for 31 hours? The answer for this question is pretty simple:

RED BULL

I drink 10–12 cans of Redbull per hackathon and yes, I know that this is dangerous and no, I don’t give a shit.

I don’t believe in sleeping more than 1 hour per day of hackathon just because there’s no time. My tactic is drinking Redbull constantly and having my brain explode from Trap music. The downside is that at 10am on Sunday, I work with 10% of my brain, and I look like a crazy person. Healthy? No, but it works and I love it!

Pitch

Your code is ready and you are in the final steps of your hacking marathon. Let’s do it!

Research each judges’ background before the pitch: You want to know their knowledge levels in order to decide if you wanna be more technical or explain the idea in a different way. For example, my group was the finalist of the IBM hackathon and by looking at the judges, we decided to take another approach at our product by focusing on a B2B and did an API instead of focusing only on the app.

  • Take a look at the prize again and be sure to mention how your idea is the best for the prize and how it differs from all the other groups.

Most of the hackathons don’t allow powerpoint presentations, and they are right in doing that because it avoids bullshitters, which are the people who have a good idea but don’t build anything. If you really need a visualization in your presentation, make that fit inside your project — create a landing page and use that in the presentation, or create some walkthrough screens inside your app.

What NOT to do

There are things that don’t belong in a hackathon. Always think that you only have 24 hours to code and 3–5 minutes to pitch

  • Don’t create many products inside your idea: even if you can do it in a weekend, the judges will get confused and will not understand your idea.
  • Don’t be too ambitious and plan to do 99 different features: in the last hours, you’ll see that the app doesn’t have core features because the devs spent too much time on the small things.

Other simple strategies

  • Know what to hardcode: We all know that it is impossible to deliver in 24 hours a product that would take a month to build, so you have to make sure you allocate our time wisely.
The thing is… Shit Happens, so don’t spend hours trying to fix a bug because this will hurt you in the last moments of the hackathon, so hardcode wisely!
  • No login screen: Always assume that the user is already logged in, because in a 3 minute presentation, you don’t want to spend 10 seconds typing emails and passwords.

Q&A

I’m a designer, isn’t a hackathon only for developers?
NO, NO and NO! Designers are the most important team members because they are responsible for making your hack look like a real product. They are also responsible for the presentation
I just started to learn programming. Should I go?
Go to your hackathon and be happy! I learned 85% of what I know in programming because of Hackathons: I learned how to use Git in my first hackathon and since that, I’m learning more and more every weekend. Also, in these first phases of programming, you want to meet people that know more than you, so they can help with good websites or ideas.

Excited to attend a hackathon? X Institute is hosting a Fashion Hackathon where you can be part of a team and build an app for the Fashion Industry, working with iBeacons. It’s a 2 day event starting on Saturday, February the 20th and there are a ton of great prizes for the winners!

Do you have any super Hackathon strategies? Comment below!


Published in Techspiration + Ideas + Making It Happen.