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Tips on How to Hack a Hackathon

Avatar photoGroundswell Team
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If it is your first time doing a hackathon or your fifth, we want to help you. We have assembled ten tips from various members on our team (aka. hackathon veterans) to keep in mind before and during a hackathon event. 

1. You don’t NEED to be an expert 

Sure, it helps if you know how to code or do graphic design, but you don’t need to know it all to do well. You don’t need to be a perfectionist to win either. One of our Technical Lead Vladimir Satura says, it “does not have to be nice; it has to work.” All you can do is your very best, and it is never good to try to become something you aren’t. That’s why our Senior QA Engineer Olga Israfilova follows the motto, “study, work hard, dare, [and] believe in yourself.”

2. Use Mentors 

Most hackathons come with mentors. Groundswell is sponsoring three hackathons this spring and we are sending mentors to each event to help. Henry Zhao, a Technical Consultant, recommends, “don’t be afraid to ask mentors.” They know precisely the situation you are in because they have been there before. There are also no wrong questions, as mentors are there to help you succeed.  

3. Put your Body First 

Just because a hackathon takes place in a set number of hours doesn’t mean you should neglect yourself. Drink plenty of water; not only is it good for you, but it also helps deliver oxygen throughout your body. Dehydration can affect brain structure and function, so drinking plenty of water is vital. 

Rest is also essential. Getting a good sleep the night before is needed as you might not get much sleep during the hackathon. Our Solutions Architect, Gabrielle Tan, recommends taking breaks. Gabrielle says to, “take several short breaks, especially when you’re stuck. … It will be easier to fix the issue/bug with fresh eyes.”

4. Have a Plan

When attending a hackathon, it is crucial to have a plan. Be open to brainstorming ideas and listening to each other. Build off of one another’s ideas and don’t get stuck on finding the perfect one or arguing. Senior Consultant Alice Wei suggests, “the quicker you can decide on an idea, the more time you’ll have to work on the solution.” 

It’s important to delegate tasks and have a project lead. Developer Kathryn Simone says to “start with a plan of action for each person. Make sure everyone on the team has a designated job,” or “it can turn into one person doing all of the work and the rest waiting for that person to finish so that they can start.” 

5. Teamwork makes the Dreamwork

Sure, it would be nice to win on all your merits alone, but everyone needs a partner. A team can help you. Even if you are alone, you can reach out to mentors or other groups, as one of our Developer’s puts it, “[there is] no need to be nervous even if you are inexperienced. There will be groups that let you join [so] you [can] observe and learn. Use the opportunity to see and learn from how other people think and tackle a problem.” 

6. No need to be Pixel Perfect

Solutions Architect Gabrielle Tan reminds us, “it’s a hackathon, not product implementation.” Your code doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to function well. Hackathons are about proving your concept more than having a fully built product. Code functionality is more important than elegance, says Gabrielle Tan, “identify a sequence flow and build the functionality that will support it, don’t worry about the other variations of the flow for the moment. You can work on those later if you still have time.” 

Technical Lead Vladimir Satura says all you need is a happy path scenario to demo. He also tells us that “we don’t need proper exception handling, nice user-readable error messages, no need to test on 3 OSes and five mobile devices to see if it works on every one of them. No need to handle edge cases, weird scenarios, etc.

7. Tips on Visuals 

Perhaps you are not a UI / UX designer like our Gosia Sikora, but you can still make your visual components sparkle with her help. Gosia Sikora recommends “start with grayscale and add colours one by one only where needed; for example, the most important buttons. Pay attention to whitespace [as] you are probably not using enough.” She also says to “be generous with margins and padding,” and that she is “99% sure you don’t need more than two fonts.” 

8. Presentation

Presentation is important as it is your time to shine. Many people have pitched movie ideas that somehow get made—like CATS—so why should this be any different? Sell your work. Senior Consultant Alice Wei says, “present and showcase your solution with lots of enthusiasm! Even if it’s not 100% complete, you can engage the audience with your contagious energy and have fun!” Tell a story in your presentation, know your audience, be confident and breathe.  

Rehearsal is critical, not only with words but with your demo as well. Developer Dan Dohan says, “when preparing your presentation, make sure you fully rehearse your story. If possible, use the exact example data used in rehearsals in the actual presentation to avoid any surprises.” If something does go wrong, and it will—even Elon Musk’s demo didn’t go perfectly— remember to keep calm and demo on. Acknowledge it, maybe come back to it after trying to debug, make a joke about it but ultimately move on quickly. 

Always leave room for questions and answers. Repeat the question back to whoever asked it as it shows clarity and gives you more time to think about the answer. If you don’t have an answer say, “I can look into that for you and get back to you”  and make sure to follow up later.

9. Know the Rules and your Audience

Developer Dan Dohan points out how helpful it can be to “find out as much as you can about the criteria for voting. Position your goal to address those criteria. Also, find out what you can about the voters. If they’re mostly technically oriented, try to impress them with clever tech features they can appreciate. If not, it may make sense to dedicate a good portion of your effort toward flashy interfaces and presentation.”

10. Pack Snacks

With our last tip, we recommend bringing some healthy snacks. Some trail mix, apple or pear wedges with peanut butter for protein, celery, edamame, kale chips or a protein shake are just a few ideas for what you could bring. Developer Kathryn Simone points out that “they usually serve pizza and don’t have a lot of healthy options.” Another Developer says that they are also usually “small in portion size and/or taste bad” that’s why he also recommends “pack your own snacks/food as a backup.” 

We hope these tips help you better prepare for your hackathon ahead. These events might seem intimidating but are meant to be an opportunity for you to fun, learn, and meet new people.

We are sponsoring 3 hackathons in Vancouver in the upcoming months:

  • NwHacks, a hackathon taking place at UBC in January
  • CMD-F , an all-female hackathon taking place in March. It is an inclusive hackathon with ‘female’ referring to anyone who identifies as such.
  • Hackcouver, a hackathon for high school students in Vancouver

Look out for us at these events this spring as members from our team will be there to serve as mentors. Feel free to ask them questions about the Hackathon, and get insights on what it is like to work in tech or at Groundswell. 

Good luck!

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