Hackathons are what would happen if an office brainstorming session ended with colleagues presenting fully formed ideas with some research behind them. Teams of three to five people work to solve a problem posed by the host using quick engineering and finish by presenting to a panel of judges. With 24 to 48 hours to create something epic, preparation is key, but so is how you approach the big day. We’ve put together a few tips for both newbies and veterans to help things go well and to make you even more competitive.
Before you go:
Choose your team wisely.
It’s great to work with friends, but be sure you know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. If those are the same for all of you, you might want to consider branching out to fill up your roster. Don’t forget that you’ll need at least one front-end engineer for making that UI/UX experience smooth. And a biz dev person may not seem vital, but they really get the judges hyped on your project during the presentation phase. Ideas can change quickly when you get started, but the skills of your team members will not. Choosing a leader to quickly make decisions when you disagree can be beneficial as well.
Research the judges.
Who are the people who will be choosing the winner? What is their experience in? Are they engineers, CTOs, API evangelists representing a company? Use this in your strategy. If they’re the last on this list, try to optimize for lesser-used functions of their API to show off your creativity and make their product look cool. Is there an investor in their midst? This is where your biz dev person can emphasize market size and potential integration with other products or companies in their portfolio. Talk about the revenue plan. Think big picture, and you’ll have their attention.
Be efficient with your time.
It’s ok to spend a couple of hours thinking through ideas. It’s better to land on a great one before you start than it is to realize you made a mistake halfway through. Don’t spend time naming your app. Pick something temporary, and inspiration will likely strike at some point while you’re working on other things. Spend more time on vital content. Don’t worry about making a log-in screen. And take advantage of templates and previously-used color schemes. Agonizing over these details won’t make much of a difference to the judges, and it will eat into your time.
Focus on the problem.
As mentioned, there’s a lot going on at hackathons, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in the high energy of things. The important thing here is to focus on solving the problem, and don’t overestimate what you can do in the time limit. It’s better to finish your project than to run out of time trying to make it perfect. Sketch a prototype on paper after you’ve determined which features you’ll prioritize and the critical path.
In the thick of it:
It’s ok to take a break.
Hackathons are intense. Stuck on something? Go for a quick walk. Grab some water or just take a few minutes to recharge with some fresh air. You’ll come back to your computer with new perspective and revived motivation.
Sometimes, when you’re not getting the results you expect, it helps to pull back a bit. Look at the wider picture and look for where you could be going wrong. Ask yourself what would have to be happening for the current results to be showing.
Use Google to your advantage.
Let’s be honest. None of us are as unique as our moms tell us we are. If you’re getting an error, it’s unlikely you’re the first. Google it! Check StackOverflow. If you’re looking for help, someone else has probably done the same. Don’t waste time on a problem that’s already been solved.
Ask for help.
There’s nothing wrong with getting help from the hackathon support team. That’s what they’re there for. You’ll even save yourself some time and explanation by using Dashcam to show them what went wrong.
Validate your concept.
Do this before you start and after you’ve finished. Send your biz dev person into the wild to talk to people who might actually use the app. Bonus points if you get a photo or two of these interactions for your presentation. It’s an extra step that will impress the judges. And if you do it early enough, you might even get some ideas to integrate into your concept.
Involve the audience in your presentation.
Engage onlookers with an interactive demo. Ask them to raise their hands if they don’t like x—something your app solves. How you do it isn’t important. What’s important is getting them invested in the outcome of your work. Make them want to use it, and they’ll be talking about it for weeks. And remember, there are Audience-Choice awards up for grabs.
Take these tips to your next hackathon, and you’ll be well on your way to taking home the grand prize. Just remember to have fun!