A beginner’s guide to Hackathon

30 Aug 2014
| Last update: 05 Oct 2015

I have to admit. I went to a hackathon only once, but as a volunteer, for Techsylvania. Does that count? I’m not quite the tech girl, so programming or developing are not among my skills. But the experience surely gave me a little bit of insight as to what to expect from this type of events. I then talked to some of my friends that participated, and asked them a few questions.

Overall, I really liked the atmosphere. I have to say that I was expecting more of a geeky environment, but all the “hackers” proved to be really cool.

What is a hackathon?hackathon

[ Credits: droidcon Global‘s flicker]

Basically, it’s an event, a race, a challenge (call it whatever you like), that lasts between 8 to 54 hours. Yea, you read that right. During this limited period of time, you and your team (yes, you’re not by yourself) need to build a product that solves a viable problem of your choice, based on the resources that are available to you. This varies from an event to another. Doesn’t that sound exciting? Developers, programmers, designers – you can all participate. Building an app requires people that have different skills.

Alright, now let’s get right into it, and see what to expect and how to prepare for a marathon of hacking.

Set up a goal

Why do you want to attend a hackathon? Maybe you want to win it, because of the awesome prizes. Or you just want to meet new people, that have different abilities. You may want to make new friends, that have the same interests as you.

Given the first case, if your goal is to win the first place (or close enough), you should prepare beforehand: with a pitch, with a team, and with confidence. The other two reasons, will come naturally, and you should take them as an opportunity.

Get some sleep before the event

I personally need sleep, so that my brain works properly. Otherwise, not even all the coffee and the RedBull in the world could keep me awake (disclaimer: this article is not sponsored by RedBull). Think about the fact that you’ll be up for who-knows-how-many-hours (depending on how long the event will last). Well, not only that. You will be working during those hours, so you need to have a clear mind.

If you’re one of those people that don’t require a lot of sleep, I officially envy you. Nevertheless, the organizers will make sure that all the participants have blankets at their disposal, couches, and what else you may be required for a couple of hours of sleep. Inevitably, you will need to sleep at some point, taking turns with your teammates.

No pitch? No problem!hackathon

[ Credits: droidcon Global‘s flicker]

After the rules are presented to the participants, begins the pitching session. What does that mean? It means that every team has under a minute to present its idea for the app they’re going to develop during the event. If you came alone, and you don’t have a pitch, there’s no problem. You can join the team whose pitch you liked the most, and start working with them. Also, if you came alone, but you present a pitch, participants that like your idea, can join you.

After that, all the hackers have to decide which team they want to join. And then…the hacking begins!

Bring some ideas with you

Even if you don’t have an actual pitch, an idea might help too. It doesn’t hurt to brainstorm with the members of your team. How awesome would it be if your idea was the chosen one? You never know, unless you try.

Team up with people that have different skills

If you came by yourself, don’t worry. You can form a team directly at the event. As I was saying earlier, at a hackathon you’ll find people that have different skills. If you’re a programmer, find a developer and a designer, and viceversa. Each will have different knowledge on the pitch you’re going to develop. The result: many awesome ideas that will guarantee your final product’s success.

At first, I thought it would be kind of awkward to come alone at a hackathon and form your team here. But it wasn’t the case. As a volunteer, I got the chance to spend most of my time among the participants, and I was able to see how the team-less folks managed to integrate with others. There’s this misconception that IT people are somehow antisocial, but they’re actually not.

Have fun

Even if you’re in for the win, enjoy yourself. Hang out with the other participants, share ideas with them. It’s no good to look at them as if they were your enemies. Networking with other people is also a big part of the hackathon. You don’t know who you might meet.

Be nice to people, and listen to what your teammates have to say. Have an open mind to any idea that might come up during the event.

Take breaks and don’t forget to eat and drinkhackathon

[ Credits: droidcon Global‘s flicker]

Dehydration may lead to the loss of focus and concentration. Make sure you drink a cup of water from time to time, even if you don’t feel like you need it. You body will surely need it, because it needs fuel to run. Speaking of fuel, take breaks to enjoy a meal. Most hackathons offer free drinks, and food, so you don’t have to worry about that. Except you need to remember to do so.

It’s really easy to get carried away with the coding. Ask one of your teammates to remind you to eat and drink, or set a reminder on your phone. And as for the food you’re going to eat, avoid fast-food. It’s heavy and full of fat and carbohydrates, and it will only make you feel tired afterwards. I’m sure you know how lazy you get immediately after you eat some pizza or a hamburger. Don’t let some bad food ruin your concentration.

Taking a breath of fresh air will help oxygenate your brain. Do something else for about an hour to relax.

Try to finish your product

54 hours or less might not be enough for you and your team to build a viable, yet functional product. Still, you should focus on finishing it. A product that works, has more chances of winning than one that, although might consist of a great idea, is not finished. The point of a hackathon is to create a product that works, in a short amount of time.

Design also matters. That’s why not only programmers and developers attend the event. A designer can help make a great impact in the presentation of the product. Make it funny, add some jokes in it.

Stay in touch with the people you’ve met

Follow up with what you accomplished at the event. Get back to the organizers, congratulate them for the event. I’m sure that you’ve met a bunch of awesome people, so keep that conversation going. If you have a blog or a website, write on it about your hackathon experience. There are so many attendees that share what they learned. Why shouldn’t you do the same? Feedback is important for the organizers too, so they can make the next edition even better.

Share your experience with me

I really liked Michelle’s experience at a hackathon only for women. Isn’t that awesome? I wish this existed in more cities around the world. If I will learn coding, or programming, or even design, somewhere in the future, I will definitely attend one.

So tell me, have you ever been to a hackathon? What did you like or dislike about it? If you’ve never been to one before, what stops you from going?

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Ana Darstaru

Content Writer at Squirrly
Ana has a strong sense of pragmatism and realism. Aside from the articles she writes for our lovely clients, she also loves testing new beauty products, and is obsessed with Pulp Fiction.
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