Transition into Tech
Beginners guide to hackathons

A beginner’s guide to HACKATHONS

We talked a lot about learning – but there comes a time when you need to roll up your sleeves and put your new-found knowledge to test. There are plenty of options – and we’ll be exploring them all. In this articles we’re looking at hackathons – a valuable and fun way to build experience, enrich your portfolio, keep learning, make great connections AND bring your contribution to a cause you care about.

So what are hackathons?

Hackathons are, firstly and foremostly, programming competitions, or coding challenges to solve a given problem. They are, essentially, marathons of using tech to ‘hack’ real world problems (hence the term ‘hack’a’thon’). Organised throughout the world and throughout the year, they can be either:

  • Cause / theme specific – ex. hackathons specialised on med-tech (medical technology)
  • Theme specific – ex. hackathons specialised on gaming
  • Application specific – ex. hackathons where all project must be build on iOS
  • Language / framework specific – ex. hackathons where all solutions must be based on Python
  • Hardware specific – ex. hackathons where all solutions must build using Arduino
  • Participant specific (demographic, level of expertise etc.) – ex. hackathons dedicated exclusively to students

Regardless of their type, they are usually team events; generally, teams are made up of 2-6 persons, although some hackathons allow the participation of ‘lone wolves’ (though both the fun and the learning are mostly derived from the team experience, especially for a beginner). If you’re worried about not knowing anyone – remember: magic happens when you step outside of your comfort zone. Plus, many hackathons have a meet’n’greet component which should help you connect.

In essence, participant teams aim to propose the best solution to the problems put forth by the organiser. Hackathons are, inherently, quests:

In terms of duration, hackathons tend to run anywhere from 12 to 72 hours, up to a maximum of one week (the duration is defined by the organisers and announced upfront); the average hackathon runs over the course of a weekend.

Given the time constraints, the outcome is expected to be a working prototype or a minimally viable product (MVP).

Finally, hackathons can be ran either:

  • Physical / offline – when they are organised on site (ex. on a university campus etc.)
  • Virtual / online – well, I guess this one is pretty self-explanatory… 🙂
  • Or, occasionally, a hybrid – starting on site and continuing virtually or the other way around.

When onsite, and again – depending on how the event is conceived, participants can either come in for the entire duration (i.e. sleep, eat on site) or return home for the night and return bright and early the following day. Hint: there may be some pizza and an excessive amount of coffee involved 🙂

A beginner's guide to HACKATHONS 1

How do hackathons work?

Here’s an overview of the event as a whole:

Well, there are so many variables that it’s impossible to give a one size fits all response to this question. However, here are some typical moments in a hackathon:

  1. Doors open / meet’n’greet / coffee – use this opportunity wisely; this is your time to network with participants in general, and particularly with people who you think might be able to help advance your new career
  2. Intro / kickoff session – where you can expect to hear a little about the organisers, the problems they’re trying to solve, the kind of tasks they envisage etc. – as well as some housekeeping items, including the forming of teams
  3. Initial workshops – these will focus on a more in-depth analysis of the needs and the problem – and often on the tech skills needed. This part is designed to make sure all teams are on the same page and start off with a clear and equal level of understanding of the stakes
  4. Teams start to work – this usually happens after lunch for a 2 day hackathon – with +/- for longer/shorter events
  5. Half-way presentation of results (for events running 2+ days) – where participants share their progress and get feedback from peers / organisers
  6. Teams continue to work – building their prototype and continuously improving it (iterating), aiming to ensure they have a functional product by the end of the event.
  7. Outline the business model – often, teams are expected to be able to clearly articulate the business model for their product
  8. Pitching – teams pitch their solutions and prizes are awarded
  9. Likely some sort of closing event – with networking opportunities.

And here’s the process at the team level:

  1. Discovery – where the team analyses the problem in all its facets. They typically consider the following:
    a. Where are we now? – where they seek to understand the status quo and why it is a problem
    b. Where do we want to be? – where they define a desirable future that eliminates the stated problem
    c. How do we get from here to there? – where they start to envisage a solution to the problem
  2. Ideation – where team members generate a number of creative ideas that might solve the problem at hand
  3. Prototyping – where members design / prototype / test their proposed solution and iterate (repeat the design / prototype / test cycle) until the solution works
  4. Presentation – where members introduce their solution to the organisers in the form of a pitch
    Need help with crafting your winning pitch? Check out this cool resource from David Beckett.
A beginner's guide to HACKATHONS 2

Benefits of hackathons

For someone working to transition into tech, hackathons are an actual gold mine; they truly are the gift that keeps on giving. Here’s how you can benefit from participating:

  1. Learning:
    • You get to test and consolidate the knowledge and skills you’ve acquired as you turn them from abstract programming skills to real life solutions; you identify loopholes and blind spots, and discover productivity-enhancing tips and tricks. Plus you get to explore new technologies – that you might not have been exposed to before. In a nutshell: you get to realise what you don’t know and where you should be heading next in your learning.
    • You learn to collaborate and to think creatively in the context of a tech-project, to understand the role of each participant in the project landscape; understand your role in a team
    • You enhance your empathy in the process as you work with people with various backgrounds, different skill sets and interests but animated by the common aim. You also realise the various perspectives needed in achieving success as well as put yourself in the shoes of the user of a real-life product
    • You oost your problem-solving skills and prioritisation in a tech context
    • You run through a full, albeit compressed, life-cycle of a project – and get to identify all stages and practice or observe project management
    • You learn how to stretch yourself beyond comfort – as you work beyond your limits; you also learn a lot about yourself – you discover aspects you like / you don’t, your role in a team
    • You improve soft skills such as communication and presentations
    • And, finally, you learn to ask for help and let go of your ego – both super important lessons for your new career
  2. Networking:
    • You get to meet like-minded people which is helpful beyond just the participation in the event. Provided you’ll be willing to reciprocate, these are people you’ll be able to to exchange with, pick their brain and go to for support beyond the hackathon. Occasionally you might even walk away with new friends as you’re likely to share an intense, memorable experience
    • You can meet recruiters – as they often sit in the juries / selection panels; impress them by successfully showcasing your skills and you might be on your way to your first job in tech. Sometimes companies use hackathons to do away with the boring and ineffective ‘traditional’ hiring practices – and prefer to see people ‘in action’ (likely the case if they are the organisers)
  3. Satisfaction:
    • You work on a project you’re passionate about; find the help you need to see a passion project come to fruition, to get from idea to proof of concept status
    • You can get re-energised / find a sense of (renewed) purpose: sometimes when you learn something super technical and abstract, it’s easy to lose track of where you’re going and to end up feeling like this is all going nowhere fast. This is why it’s crucial that you lose any form of impostor syndrome you might be feeling – like, yesterday – and get out there and see your new skills create magic. There’s something about starting with an idea and seeing a final product shape up in just a few hours
    • You will have A LOT of fun (remember the pizza and drinks?). If ever you wanted to re-live those student-y, dorm-room, last-person-standing style get togethers – this is your chance. Plus you get to sample the exquisite programmer humour 🙂
    • You can build confidence – as you will likely know something someone else doesn’t and you’ll get to share your knowledge
    • Did I mention the prizes and the swag*? (wink wink)**

      * Yes, chances are you’ll walk away with a sticker for your laptop and more – the usual suspects include tshirts, mugs etc.
      ** If you do it right, it’s not about the win!

Oh, and one last thing: occasionally – hackathon projects take on a life of their own and become successful – and lucrative – startups.

What do you need to participate in a hackathon?

The good news is that everyone can take part in a hackathon – as successful teams need to have several perspectives represented, and a variety of professionals on board. Here are some of the options:

  • Subject matter experts (ex. law for legal tech, teaching professional for ed-tech etc.)
  • Designer – product, UX, UI, graphic design
  • Front end: HTML / CSS / JS / Frameworks and / or Android / iOS + version control (Git)
  • Backend – Python / Ruby / Perl / Php etc.
  • Project manager – analysis, marketing, technical communication
A beginner's guide to HACKATHONS 3

The important thing to keep in mind is that you don’t necessarily need experience – don’t let lack of it stop you. There’s literally room for everyone unless the description clearly calls for experts – in which case you can still find ways to fit in, by volunteering to help out, for instance. However, these are rare and usually the only thing that’s holding you back, is a solid case of impostor syndrome – don’t let it hold you back.

Keep in mind that in the majority of cases, hackathons are meant to be learning events too – so the organisers will have mentors available, workshops etc. If in doubt, drop them a line and see what they say.

How do you prepare for a hackathon?

  1. Read the description carefully – and be sure to submit your application by the deadline; take note of anything you might need to bring along + make of anything that’s expected of you
  2. Read up – if the organisers have suggested something, do that first; then think what else might come in handy – and prepare to the best of your abilities
  3. If you already know the topic and are going to work on a specific project – prepare your idea and do any research you can do in advance. Also, think of the roles that might be needed to make it a success; this will help you connect with the right participants
  4. Connect – sometimes the organisers create special groups – on a social network, a forum etc.; be sure to join these. If not, simply follow the organisers and any partners. Check out their site and see if they’ve announced certain speakers already – follow them too. At a very minimum, check out the list of participants as soon as it’s available – and make note of anyone in particular you might like to meet
  5. Try to set some goals – something you’d like to learn, something you’d like to try, someone you’d like to meet
  6. The night before – pack your bag, prepare comfy clothing / shoes, sleep well,

Here’s what you might want to pack:

  • Paperwork: ID, registration confirmation
  • Gear:
    • Laptop, charger, any peripheral devices you use (ex. mouse), a good USB key and an extension cord (you can thank me later)
    • Headphones and a good playlist 🙂 – but this begs an additional comment: do NOT use them extensively. Instead, have them just for the downtime or if you split up to work individually and REALLY need them to focus.
    • Mobile, charger / battery
    • Passwords!!! Any passwords you anticipate using – but please, don’t have them on a post-it! Think password manager or at least a VERY secure file on your computer
  • Supplies:
    • Notepad, pens, post-its
    • Empty bag for the swag 🙂
  • Comfort:
    • Sleeping bag / blanket, yoga mat, mini pillow, ear plugs / sleeping mask (if you need your quiet to sleep)
    • Food (if mentioned by the organisers – or if your have any dietary restrictions), favourite snacks
    • Extra sweater, maybe a change of clothes, hair ties if need be, toiletries (you WILL need them)
    • Refillable water bottle
    • Any medication (allergy, headaches…) or any devices you might need, eye drops
  • An open mind 🙂
Packing

Finally, here’s a good list of things you might want to consider doing during the hackathon. And another one from one of my go-to resources – DZone. And don’t forget – Google is your friend.

Leverage your hackathon experience in your job search

Once you’ve attended a hackathon (and slept it off), here’s what you can, and should, do to leverage it to benefit your job search:

  1. Add your participation to your resume and to your LinkedIn profile. Highlight the skills you used, and the new skills you built
  2. Talk about the experience on social. It’s all about documenting your participation – you can do this in an article on your own blog or a platform like Medium, on your favourite social network (I highly recommend using Twitter and LinkedIn). Focus on your lessons learnt. Tag & thank the organisers, the sponsors, other participants as appropriate, particularly in giving credit where credit’s due
  3. Stay in touch with your new contacts – immediately friend them on social and cultivate the relationship; send an interesting article here, make a recommendation or facilitate a connection there… keep in mind that what goes around, comes around.

Upcoming hackathons

Highlights:

World Hackathon Day – 29-30 May 2020; register now!

Or use these options to search for a hackathon near you:

Lastly, here are some tips for making the most of your hackathon, from HackerEarth.

Have you attended your first hackathon? Be sure to drop me a line to share your experience. Also, check out this article on Slideshare (below) – be sure to share it!

2 comments

    • Hey DT, thanks so much for stopping long enough to drop a comment – it made my day (it’s a brand new project 🙂 ) I’d love any feedback you might have – on the article or the site in general.
      And yeah, EU vs. virus was fun! Are you a participant too?
      A smile,
      Ioana

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