A few months ago I not only helped plan my first hackathon, but also attended my first hackathon. Yep, that’s right. The first hackathon I helped plan was my first experience with a hackathon. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect. Sure, I’ve planned events before, but never anything like this 48-hour event that would need my full attention all weekend long. Though planning and participating in a hackathon are different, I was able to see from an outsider’s perspective how participants can use the experience to grow and learn. From one newbie to another, here are some of my tips for your first hack:
Scared to sign up without a team? I get ya. The idea of your first hackathon is intimidating enough, but to sign up alone? That’s almost too much. Don’t fear though — most hackathons have a “team formation” room for people just like you to join after checking in. It’s a time when both individuals and teams who are looking for additional members come together to form teams based on individual skill sets.
I know, I know. It’s hard to resist the free Famous Amos cookies, Cheetos and soda, but I promise if you look just to the side of the delicious junk food snacks, there will be a plethora of granola bars, trail mix and fruit. Hackathons take a lot of energy, both mentally and physically, so the best thing you can do for your body is fuel it properly. Otherwise, you could crash before you finish your project - and no one wants that.
We’ve heard it a thousand times - don’t be afraid to ask for help. This couldn’t be more true when participating in your first hackathon. Hackathons give you rare access to individuals with years of experience across many different fields and areas. Be sure to take advantage of this opportunity and use the hackathon’s communication platform (we’re big fans of Slack) to ask for help. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the response you get.
Hackathons give you rare access to individuals with years of experience across many different fields and areas.
Hackathons are a fantastic opportunity to learn new skills, sharpen existing ones and meet new people in the industry. This especially applies to LaunchCoders or self-taught programmers. Your first hackathon will allow you apply the skills and projects you’ve learned through your coursework to help solve real-life issues.
Working around the clock on a project can be stressful and intense. That’s why hackathon organizers like to plan both informational workshops and fun activities throughout the weekend. It can be hard to step away from your projects, but a lot of the scheduled workshops are theme-focused and designed to help inspire participants’ ideas. So, when you are in need of a fun mental break, take a few minutes to play a round of ping pong, bags or any other fun activity that might be at the hackathon.
I completely get it. Your team thinks they have the winning idea, so when another team comes over late Saturday night asking what you’ve come up with, you put your guard up. But what if that other team is just looking to chat and praise you for your awesome idea? Hackathons are so much more than a competition. They’re meant to be an inclusive, collaborative space that facilitates building awesome software and prototypes. Don’t let your ego get in the way of that. Plus, what’s the likelihood that another team can copy your idea in a few short hours? Pretty unlikely.
One of the biggest pulls for soon-to-be-programmers to participate in a hackathon is the ability to connect with industry experts. Even if you aren’t in job-seeking mode yet, it’s important to build these types of professional relationships early on.
One of the groups I enjoyed watching work throughout the weekend was a team of high school students. None of them had participated in a hackathon before and most were pretty new to coding. Unfortunately, a few minutes before judging, they realized their prototype had a bug that rendered their project inoperable. Though they didn’t get to present to the judges and have a chance to win, they still valued the experience because they were able to create something out of nothing.
My hope is that these tips encourage those teetering on the edge of participating in a hackathon to bite the bullet and sign up for one. What do you have to lose?
By: McKenna Craigmiles
Outreach and Events Manager