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My First Hackathon: Lessons Learned and Tips for Success

Although my background is not in tech, I recently participated in my first hackathon — and it was amazing! When I signed up for the Unicorns In Tech Hackathon 2023, I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to go — and now I can’t wait for the next one! In just 12 hours, I crammed in weeks of learning, collaborated with incredibly talented people and created a solution for the LGBTQ+ community. If you’re considering entering a hackathon yourself, I’ll share my tips on what to expect and how to make the most of the experience.

What You’ll Learn:

  • What to expect from your first hackathon experience.
  • How to approach your first hackathon and feel prepared.
  • How to leverage your unique skillsets in your team structure to deliver quality results.

What Is a Hackathon?

A hackathon is a multi-day event that brings together experts from various fields to address a specific societal problem or produce a new product prototype.

Companies often use this type of event as a low-risk, high-creativity means of idea generation and testing. In some cases, the participants are limited to the company’s internal employees; in others, such as mine, sponsor companies throw hackathons to support an organization.

Hackathon challenges could address societal issues like climate change or economic disparities, or technological issues like AI or blockchain as their specific focal points. Or, they could challenge employees to create an app to address a common customer complaint, improve employee satisfaction or decrease office expenditures.

In my case, this hackathon had a focus or a topic that we needed to create solutions to address. Unicorns in Tech is part of Uhlala, the largest LGBTQ+ focused organization in Europe. The focus, or challenge, of UIT Hack 2023 was to create solutions that address violence against the LGBTQ+ community.

The hackathon organizers originally shared the event in our UIT Slack. If you aren’t already part of community-oriented tech discussion groups, I urge you to join as a means of expanding your network and learning about relevant events and job postings.

Are you wondering how you can set your resume apart from other developers competing for the same roles? “Hack Your Job Search: An Authoritative Guide to Landing Your First Dev Interview” offers insider tips and advice for using hackathons and other methods to stand out from the crowd!

Read Hack Your Job Search Today!

My Hackathon Experience

After signing up, the sponsor shared the itinerary for the two days of the event. In my case, the hackathon included a four-hour introduction session on Friday followed by a full 12-hour sprint on Saturday.

I arrived on Friday at WeWork, a key sponsor. Once checked in, I was free to roam the campus and chat with other arrivals before the event officially commenced.

To warm the crowd up, we started with mini-games. Rock-paper-scissors is a classic!

Next, the organizers ran through their introduction and got us quickly up to speed with the hackathon’s rules:

  • The central challenge: “Create a solution that prevents violence against LGBTQ+ people and/or provides support to victims of said violence”.
  • The limitations of the solution were focused on the areas of assistive tech, awareness mechanisms and innovations in data collection methodologies.
  • Our solutions could take the format of a demo app, a demo website or a social business deck.
  • Our teams could include four to six people.
  • We had from 8am–8pm on Saturday to work.
  • Our presentation needed to be 5–7 minutes long and include up to five slides.
  • The winning team would be selected by crowd voting.

Shortly after this intro session, we were given 15 minutes to have a break and to think of an idea we could announce on stage in a one-minute pitching session.

We formed teams and aligned on a concept. Upon arriving the next day for the full hack sprint, our team dissolved and another member and I joined another team. This team’s focus was on creating a single point of emergency access.

The team already had a data scientist, product manager and back-end and front-end engineers. I brought marketing, communications and business strategy to the table, while my other teammate brought UX/UI and Design to the team. Serendipitously, we were a well rounded team!

We set out by challenging the utility of the idea under the hackathon constraints. I aided in keeping our solution limited to what was viable and feasible under both the time limit and optimal format for a simple MVP presentation.

The data scientist, as the idea progenitor, led the vision. She and the UX/UI designer structured the user journey and interface pieces necessary for the demonstration. The product manager and I led the creation of branding elements, persona, scale, pitch deck and a go-to-market strategy. We also kept the team on track and oversaw project management.

Over the course of 12 hours, the scope of our project changed to accommodate the severe lack of time at our disposal. 12 hours is actually a very short time period! At the one-hour mark, the whole building came alive as teams were rushing to complete their prototypes and make sure things were live and ready for demo.

Suddenly, we were standing on stage presenting our app demo, showing the accessible features and streamlined amalgamation of queer support resources in a single point of contact. Seven other teams presented their superb responses to the challenge in various mediums.

The organizers selected the winning teams — voila — and the hackathon ended with a group photo and, of course, a LinkedIn sharing fest!

Preparing for a Hackathon

Although I had a wonderful experience at my first hackathon, there were some things I wish I’d known going into it. If you want to feel prepared, here are some things to pay attention to.

Study the Available Roles

Before you attend a hackathon, it’s a good idea to be aware of the different roles you’ll work with.

I wish I had been more familiar with technical roles such as back-end or front-end developer. My previous professional experience in large organizations meant my functions typically operated at a distance from these kinds of coworkers.

A quick study of the more technical roles at the hackathon would have given me a better understanding of what I could rely on those teammates to do.

If you’re technical yourself, you might want to investigate the non-technical roles, such as marketing or project management. This will help you better utilize all members of your team.

Focus on Selecting the Right Team

I didn’t have any reservations about the scope of the challenge or the limitations we had. However, I was nervous about selecting the right team. As this was my first hackathon experience, I didn’t know what an optimal team looked like. This worry was exacerbated when I realized I didn’t fully understand all of the 10+ roles in the room, as I mentioned above.

To help alleviate this concern, try reviewing examples of previous hackathons, their team structures and the results they presented. This will give you a better grasp of how you can align your ideas with your team structure.

Don’t Stress About Your Idea

Concentrating on picking a winning idea is not actually the best approach in a hackathon. Though winning is great, learning is much more of a sustainable, rewarding outcome.

Instead, spend your energy on building a great team. Aspects of team dynamics such as communication style, experience, working style and language play a major part in such a contracted timeframe. Identifying team members who work well together makes all the difference in cohesion and delivering an excellent result.

Pay Attention to Your Body’s Limitations

The importance of understanding what to expect when your body reaches its natural limit cannot be understated. I tend to believe I can power through any amount of time and work. Once I hit the seven- to nine-hour mark, I realized this was a delusional belief. Everyone who was newer to hackathons faced this realization during the process.

Awareness of your bodily limitations needs to be a contributing factor to your team’s project timeline. In my hackathon, many of us realized that we should have abbreviated our accomplishment targets.

An ambitious prototype might not materialize in the right way if, by hour eight, half of your team needs a one-hour nap and is significantly constricted by a state of fatigue. Instead, build breaks and rest periods into your planning.

Learn Fast. Fail. Grow.

In a hackathon, time is of the essence, so you need to streamline your processes. Quickly get a feel for the validity of your idea by running hypothetical tests and securing a consensus. It makes more sense to support an idea that you can productively move forward than to rush something that ends up outside of the challenge scope or you can’t achieve in the time you have available.

During the hackathon, make sure to identify who is doing what and how it will move your goals forward. Designate a team leader to check in with each area or team member to make sure everyone is moving in the right direction. If there is an issue with delivering something, it should be communicated early on to see if the team has resources to help or whether it needs to be phased out.

When you begin to build your prototype, you might discover that your idea falls apart. Don’t panic! This is part of the process. Constantly finding the flaws in your idea or its design allows you to move through barriers faster and get to a viable end result.

In many cases, you’ll need to flex your role to help someone in a capacity that’s foreign to you — which is exactly why hackathons are a perfect learning ground. You’ll develop your expertise and, more importantly, learn where you have adjacent skills that are waiting for you to develop them. Dive in and give it a try. You might unlock a new interest!

Many of the most interesting presentations are unconventional or speak directly to the voting body. Understand who your audience is and how to excite them. With this in mind, you can shape your storytelling and the presentation format of your prototype to address both the challenge and the audience!

Your outcome extends beyond just the solution. It includes networking, learning opportunities and, in my case, solidarity with your community.

How to Find Your First Hackathon

If you want to find hackathons to join, take a good look at your communities and keep tabs on their upcoming events! That’s how I came across my very first hackathon with Unicorns In Tech. I wanted to get more involved in the queer tech space in Berlin. Lo and behold, the week after I joined, they were putting on their very own hackathon.

As I noted earlier, hackathons come in different forms with different objectives. Research up-and-coming events in your area and ask yourself, “How does this fit with my career focus?” if you’re a working professional or, “How can I expand my experience in new ways?” if you’re a recent graduate or student.

Above all, just jump in! You’ll learn an incredible amount and have your stamina tested! It’s a good way to feel out new experiences and explore ambitious challenges.

Key Takeaways

A couple of key points to take away include:

  • If you ever wanted to test something or explore a new skillset, this is the time to do it!
  • Set clear goalposts, project tasks and deliverables so everyone is on the same page. Keep your limitations in mind when planning.
  • Constantly test your idea and how it addresses both the challenge and the voting body.

Where to Go From Here?

Hopefully, by this point, you’re feeling fired up to enter your own first hackathon! But if you could use some additional resources, check out these links:

Do you have any questions about hackathons? Any tips from your first experience to share? Click the Comments link below to join the discussion!

About the Author

Marcus is a marketing and communications specialist. His expertise also spans into design and DEI. Much of his work addresses accessibility and closing the various forms of opportunity gaps in finance, investment, and technology.

He sits on the business side of the hackathon experience, lending his skills in product, project management, strategy, business development and branding to tell the story of his team’s solution and reinforce its viability.

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