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Saturday, March 4, 2023

Hackathon success: Tips and tricks for improving your performance

Learn tips and tricks to enhance your hackathon performance. Gain insights on team formation, idea identification, and project presentation.

What is a hackathon? Hackathons are competitions where teams engage in speed and collaborative engineering for 24 to 48 hours. These competitions come in different flavors; a hackathon can be short (24 to 48 hours) or long-term (2 to 3 weeks), idea or prototype-oriented, and game or technology-based. A hackathon is usually hosted by a company or an educational organization, targeting a specific demographic (i.e., students, recent grads, experienced programmers), offering prizes, and proposing a panel of judges for different stages of the competition.

In my personal experience as a software developer, I started attending hackathons in 2018 and have been successful in many cases. Each hackathon has helped me develop a specific skill set to identify opportunities to have a successful hackathon. For instance:

  • Third place at the Instituto Tecnológico de Buenos Aires hackathon in 2018.
  • Special mention in the Instituto Tecnológico de Buenos Aires game jam in 2018.
  • Winner of JP Morgan's "Code for Good" hackathon in Argentina in 2019.
  • Special mention in the Global Game Jam 2019, Buenos Aires' center location.
  • Finalist at Bellatrix's "Hackatrix" hackathon in Argentina in 2019.

You can expect to find insights on leveraging the hackathon event to network with participants and organizers, identify a successful idea, pick your team, and lead a successful hackathon project. An insight into my experience winning an important hackathon can help you kickstart your next hackathon idea.

Preparing for your hackathon

Preparation is essential to success in a hackathon. Although many hackathons have secret themes unveiled during the event, you can research some topics beforehand. You could look into previous hackathons by the same organization, understand what the organizing company is working on and what their projects are, look for indications of the hackathon theme, and research potential hackathon participants. For example, many organizations give their employees a chance to be mentors. You can check out the company's LinkedIn and see if anyone posted anything related. Leverage social media to understand the employee's role and why it might be significant in the hackathon.

You could brainstorm some ideas before the event, but the organizers may have special safeguards to prevent any attendees from doing that. Don't let this discourage you. Any preparation is better than no preparation; use your creativity and experience from past hackathons (if applicable) to think of an innovative idea or more.

Build your team if possible. Most hackathons foster team participation, so use that to your advantage. Partner with other people you know will attend and form a small group (no more than five people), and make sure it is a diverse team. Having five developers working on the same idea can lead you to miss out on opportunities to show your great idea. Have a great public speaker, a fast designer, and at least one developer in your group. A small team that's also diverse can speed up communication and division of tasks.

Time to start the hackathon

We can all agree that the most significant constraint of a hackathon is time. You might have a fantastic project idea, but that won't save you if you run out of time. As a team, you should think of a project together and plan for it. As a developer, we are usually famous for underestimating projects. Have a backup plan. Switch to the alternate scheme if the idea is not working by a specific time. For example, attempt to code it for some time or use no-code tools if time is tight. No one will judge your coding skills when time is of the essence.

Balance creativity with feasibility. An innovative solution that is not feasible by any means is worth nothing. Back your project with real-life information and technology. If coding can take you there within the time frame, go ahead. Think of it as a product in the market, and try to answer the following questions:

  • Which customer stories are targeted by your project?
  • How will you gather analytics and a way to visualize them?
  • How will administrators and users use this?
  • How can you monetize and scale this project?

After coming up with your big idea, use your project management skills to designate the following tasks:

  • Up to two developers work on the prototype or prototypes.
  • One team member prepares a pitch and presentation.
  • Another team member talks with organizers, other participants, and the judges (if possible).
  • Have an extra team member to help with any of the previous tasks.

This set of roles can help you communicate and test your innovation before presentation time. Iterate with people and your hackathon team to tune your idea to the competition. Communication is the basis of a successful hackathon project and team.

Leverage all the resources offered to your advantage. Talk to mentors and see if they can provide any tips or information. Use existing architectures or APIs to bring your idea to life.

Presenting your idea to the judges

Your 10 to 15-minute pitch decides the fate of your project, so spend all the time possible perfecting and practicing it. Before spending all night working on your pitch, talk to the organizers, understand what they see as a good idea, and tailor your presentation. Your presentation should be able to clearly and concisely answer the following questions:

  • What is the problem you are trying to solve?
  • Why are you solving that problem?
  • What is your idea, and how it works?
  • How your idea tackles that problem?
  • How your project differs from others, and how it adds value?
  • How can you scale your project and make it viable?

Your presentation should be visually appealing and communicate your idea. Don't spend time on coding details that the judges won't understand or account for when evaluating you. The presentation should tell a simple, coherent, and cohesive story. Don't throw buzzwords like artificial intelligence, blockchain, or machine learning without justification. The presentation should highlight why your project is an innovation and how it adds value to the world.

Have the best public speaker in your team practice the pitch multiple times. Your role, if not speaking, is to help them prepare for the presentation. It is their time to shine. You can also check other projects and snoop on their pitch preparation to check for missing talking points in yours.

Takeaways from your hackathon

Regardless of how you performed at the event, there are multiple takeaways. Reflect on what went wrong during the hackathon, what was a success, and how you and your team can improve. You can identify strong and weak points in your pitch, presentation, and prototype. Spend some time with your team after the hackathon reflecting upon this. Use all the knowledge and skills you acquired for your next great idea and hackathon.

During downtime in the hackathon, you can network with other attendees or employees from the organizer. There could be open opportunities ready to be taken. That's how I got my first job. Your connections might help you in future competitions.

Once the event finishes, teams usually discard their idea. You should consider pursuing the idea if viable. Multiple hackathon projects turned out to be million-dollar startups. Don't be quick to discard yours. In my case, we chased a blockchain-based education project that aimed to disrupt the exchange system and even got a partner, but the time wasn't right for the project.

My personal experience in hackathons

In 2019, as a group of five students, we won JP Morgan's "Code for Good" hackathon in Argentina. The hackathon focused on solving a problem for one of the two present NGOs. This choice involved two main points:

  1. We had to select the NGO that could have the most significant impact.
  2. All teams for the same NGO had the same problem to solve, meaning multiple, very similar ideas. Our project idea had to be different from the rest.

The idea we came up with had many different aspects. It included an application for users and an administrator dashboard. This dashboard was one of the things that set us apart. Although the idea was not an innovation, considering real-life implementation was the key.

Some programmers spent time working on the prototypes, others designed the presentation, and the rest of the team talked with people from the event to validate our idea. This set of tasks and iteration with these insights gave us an edge over the competition.

Our working prototypes separated us from the competition, as we were the only team in the hackathon to have this. Judges could see that our idea was viable, even for five early-career students. It allowed us to win the competition and the prizes.

Winners of JP Morgan's "Code for Good" hackathon in 2019.
Winners of JP Morgan's "Code for Good" hackathon in 2019.

Closing thoughts

Hackathons are a great way to test your skills and show expertise in your field. Use them as a way for personal and professional growth. Many great ideas and opportunities originated from hackathons, so don't discard your project immediately after the event finishes. You might have your next million-dollar startup there.

I hope these tips and tricks improve your performance in future hackathons and competitions, regardless of whether it is an internal hackathon, virtual hackathon, or game jam. Don't be discouraged if the hackathon seems complex or you don't have a team, take a leap and participate. Take all the swag you can, and check the related posts for other tech insights.