How to Win at a Hackathon

These are things that I’ve found drive successful teams at Hackathon’s

Fundamental Principal:

You win by creating a good hack and presenting it well.

We’ll break this into two sections.

First: Create a good Hack
Build Small
Make it a topic you’re an expert in
Make it useful to you -> Build something you want
Try to find something that takes 3 or more clicks and turn it into 1 click
Use the Mentors to learn and create
Use the mentors to determine if you have a good project
Use GitHub
Take Advantage of the APIs and Sponsor Solutions – they’ll help you get far
Don’t build a working prototype
Build a robust demo application
Make it smoke and mirrors if necessary
Looks can go a long way to engaging customers
Follow the money (especially if you don’t want to start a company)
Make it engaging
Break down problems as you face them
Delegate amongst your team
Ask Why?
Don’t sit idle
Make friends
Spend time talking to the organizers
Tell a story
Stick to the fundamentals
Work to each teammates strength
Find a quiet space to focus
Watch the clock
Don’t get discouraged, enter another Hackathon
Go to the talks to learn more
Take some photos, take a walk, clear your mind

Most importantly, Have Fun!

Second: Present it well
Practice your pitch
Talk about these things: What’s the problem, how you fixed it
Tell a story
Don’t push back against questions
Have fun
Get up in front of people and make them listen to it
The mentors are good people to practice with
Use the science fair time to rehearse
Use the most articulate person on your team to present
Let the Sponsors know you used their product
Have a clear submission on Challengepost
Stick to the demo you’re comfortable with -> Don’t present Alpha on stage

The above tips are to warn and tip you off about the potential pitfalls of the next 24+ hours.

I think an example itinerary might help hackers who are serious:

1. Pregame

Go to the booths
Talk to the sponsors about their prizes
Brainstorm as you go from table to table
Engage with other hackers while you wait to talk
Ask them if they have any ideas if they have a team
Join a team of 1 to 4
Hash out a couple ideas – Three is a good number to take to the next phase
No writing just speaking

2. Learn and Plan

Learn the why? and how? of your project
Go to talks if you need to brush up on tech
Talk to mentors about what needs to get done
Find resources that will help you accomplish your how

Get on a whiteboard
Wire frame
Prototype and create user models
Talk to your team about the plan
Communicate what everyone is doing
Spend time setting up dev environments
Get going with source control
Practice a push or two to make sure everything works
Practice using GitHub!
Delegating a head developer isn’t a bad idea

4. Create

Start small
Get the first things in place as a team so everyone understands the framework
Begin to delegate as more pieces need to be worked in
Find a quiet spot where you can focus
Delegate tasks
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Continue to learn as you work.
Commit small changes
Spin up a VM or website to host your project and database

5. Submit

Submit early
Make your challenge post clear
Stop Building

6. Present

Practice your pitch and presentation
Know your demo back and front
Try to get feedback from the demo hour
Get on stage! Perform!

7. Reflect

Something happened in the last 24 hours…
Don’t let if slip your mind
Try to spend some time journal-ing about the experience
Pool the resources you acquired
Update your resume
Sign up for the next hackathon -> It will be better than the first.

If you came to this hackathon and you feel totally out of your element that’s okay.
Hackathons are a great place to be out of your comfort zone, there’s food, friends, and things to learn. I have a sample itinerary for those folks as well:

Go to the booths.
Ask the mentors questions about their companies. Ask them about computer science and development in general. Ask them why?

Find people who are in a similar boat and hang out with them, ask them about their experience with computers and computer science.

Go to the sessions to learn about development.

Start with Code Academy and move onto development with Touch Develop, Python, or JavaScript. Make something tiny.

Shoot for something adorable.

Practice using GitHub take tutorials online

Go around asking groups about their hacks, ask if they need users to test their interfaces.

Go to the presentations -> Take note of the good presenters, take note of the good demos

Connect with the people you met on Facebook.

Reflect (Like above)

Having said all that… You are here to learn and challenge yourself to do your best. Nobody is going to die. Take this time to put something behind you and move forward in your pursuit of Technical expertise.

This is what a Hackathon Looks like before Hackers arrive. The tables look barren.
This is what a Hackathon Looks like before Hackers arrive. The tables look barren.

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