Whether you’re a newcomer or a long-time veteran, developers participating in hackathons are in for an exhilarating — if at times overwhelming — experience. It’s good to go in knowing some tricks of the trade, especially if you’re playing to win. In our experience at the recent Money 20/20 Hackathon (where we ended up winning the Visa challenge and $25,000, as well as second place and $5,000 in the overall Hackathon’s final round), we noticed a number of successful practices that we thought might be helpful to other developers if we shared them as tips. Here they are.
1. Know What You’re Getting Into
This begins with learning the hackathon rules. Activities around the event most often begin long before the actual hackathon with official social media channels and key event sponsors offering useful information. Closer to the event, watch for webinars and presentations that explain what is expected from participants, as well as the basic rules of the game.
One way or another, you’re likely going to be given a finite period of time to write fresh code and create a working demo of a product. In our case, the rules allowed for using templates for front-end design, as well as any open source tools and programming languages. Preparing and paying close attention to the rules earned us a nice edge because it turned out we were able to use our Corezoid Process Engine, which allowed us to quickly assemble algorithms in the cloud rather than puff away with Java, Python, etc. like our rivals.
2. Be Friendly!
A hackathon isn’t a reality show where you’re “not here to make friends” – if you’re doing it correctly, it’s pretty much the opposite. You can absolutely lose the hackathon and ultimately win where it counts by making human connections. Hackathon sponsors, entrants, and even observers are all potential friends, colleagues, and partners waiting to happen. I recommend approaching others with warm contact and simple phrases, “Hi! I’m [insert your name here]. I’m from the [your team name] team. Who are you? What are you working on?” These simple phrases could be the first words of relationships that live on into the years.
3. Rehearse With Random Strangers
The easiest way to rehearse the presentation of your hackathon project is to speak to your teammates, who will, of course, understand everything you’re saying and like your speech a lot. However, give that same presentation to a random person at the event and they’ll likely understand about 10% of what you have to say. If you want your final speech to result in polite nods and confusion, stick with the team. If you want to communicate those brilliant revolutionary concepts of yours so that your audience can get on board, get some practice with people who aren’t believers yet.
4. Be Strategic About Food and Sleep
Hackathons can easily go 24 hours, but your weak human body can’t. No matter how far you can surf on the event’s excitement, you won’t be at your best without being smart about food and sleep. On the food front, hackathon organizers will often have you covered with hot breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, as well as always-available tea, coffee, water, cola, etc. At our recent hackathon, we joked about the brilliance of simply buying some $10 tickets, enjoying two great days of eating, camping out in sleeping bags in a lobby for fun, scoring the sponsored swag t-shirts and hoodies, and not actually taking part in the hackathon.
As far as sleep goes, once you have a working build of your application and the adrenaline is wearing off, it can be a wise move to get some rest in three to four hour shifts. This way, work continues, but everyone on the team has a chance to be fresh and clear-headed when it counts. A little rest also makes the whole event a more cheerful, enjoyable thing.
And you want to be clear headed at the finale because you’ll need to...
5. Test and Finalize Your Product for Presentation
Final drafts can be unrecognizable from first ones, and a little polish goes a long way. You want a little energy in your tank to take on any issues and cross the finish line with style. In our case, two hours before our presentation, we began getting errors and had to track down and resolve an external issue, which would have been a lot more frustrating to discover on stage.
Expect to have a little fight on your hands right at the end of your hackathon, and you’ll be ready to win it.
Sergii Danilenko is the Chief Operating Officer of Corezoid, provider of the eponymous Platform-as-a-Service cloud process engine that enables companies to build agile business processes that are triggered by real-time events.