by Jason In

How to crack the Hackathon

Using these strategies, you might even win…

I believe that many people have heard of the word — Hackathon. But what the heck is it?

What is a Hackathon?

A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including domain experts, collaborate intensively on software projects. — Wikipedia

In layperson’s terms, a hackathon is usually a 24~72 hour long event. The organizer will provide some challenges, and the participants will form teams and try to come up with their best ideas/solutions.

Eventually, the team(s) who presented the best ideas/solutions will get to win some cool prizes. Prizes can be cash or some gadgets. The agenda usually goes like this:

  1. Registration
  2. Introduction
  3. Team Formation
  4. Start Hacking
  5. Snacking (foods, snacks, midnight snacks, pizza…)
  6. Hacking Ends
  7. Presentations/Pitches & Judging
  8. Winner Announced

Let’s begin our journey and learn how we can crack the hackathon!

1. Unity is strength

To win the hackathon, you have to form your dream team. The first thing to do when you get to a hackathon is to form a team. You will be forming a team with random people, and ideally, a 3~5 person team is good.

Often, you will find that people there are equipped with different expertise. Don’t be afraid if you can’t code because that is absolutely fine.

Your mission is to find these 3 types of people and ask them to join your team (would be great if you yourself are one of these 3 as well):

  1. The Coder — You will need at least one person who can code. Someone with front-end or mobile development experience is even better. If your team doesn’t have a single person who can code, go find one.
  2. The Presenter a.k.a. The Salesperson — If you are very confident in building a great product, good to hear that. Though, if you can’t sell it to the audience, I’m sorry to tell you that no matter how great your idea is, you will most likely fail. Someone who can present well is very important here. I would even say that sometimes the presenter is even more important than the coder.
  3. The Designer — Now you have got someone who can code, someone who knows how to sell the idea, what’s next? You need someone who can make a nice user interface for the product. Although a designer is not a must, still, it is strongly recommended to have one in the team.

2. The message behind

Figure out what companies are looking for. Companies are not doing charity. After you have formed your team, calm down and observe. Look around and make sure you know who are the event sponsors.

For instance, hackathons organized by Microsoft probably will look for some ideas that can fully utilize Microsoft technology — Azure Machine Learning, SQL Database, Cognitive Services, etc.

Almost 100% of the time, the companies who sponsor the hackathon want to see how their products or services can be used to build the next Facebook or Snapchat. Thus, focus on thinking how you can make use of the services provided by the sponsors.

3. The light bulb moment

Brainstorm with your team and try to come up with a list of ideas. Any random idea is fine, just write it out and see which one makes the most sense.

There was once I went for a hackathon in London. It was organized by a company that provided mobile wallet and sponsored by another company that sells beacons.

We came up with an Android mobile app that allows people to order food in any restaurant easily. People can read the restaurant’s menu, order, pay with their phones, and just wait for the food to be served.

We had a database that stores information that looks somewhat like this — <beacon_id, restaurant_table_id>

By putting a beacon on each of the tables in the restaurant, we can identify which restaurant a person is in, and also where the person is seated.

Knowing where the user is, our application can decide which menu to show to the user. After ordering, the user can make a payment using either the mobile wallet, credit cards, or cash.

As you can see, our application made use of both the service provided by the organizer — the mobile wallet, as well as the product given by the sponsor — the beacon. This is the kind of idea that can win you the hackathon.

If possible, we should always make use of as many services given as possible. Having said that, I’m not telling you that embedding all the services will win you the hackathon. But rather, if there are 2 ideas from different teams, both cool and innovative, the team that uses more services has a higher chance to win.

4. Let The Coder shine

Ask the coder in your team to start building a Proof-Of-Concept (POC). After coming up with a brilliant idea, make it real. This is the time where the coder and the designer have to work closely together.

A POC doesn’t have to be bug-free and it can actually have zero functionality. In fact, most of the time, more than 80% of the functions are hard-coded. It is just for visualization purposes, helping the audience understand how your product/idea works.

Although a POC doesn’t have to have all the functions, one important thing is that it must look good. Try to make it look really nice so that the judges can be impressed when they see your team coming up with such a beautifully designed product in a limited amount of time.

5. The Steve Jobs moment

Prepare for the presentation. Ideally, the salesperson can start working on the presentation while the POC is being built.

Sometimes, at least for me, the salesperson and the coder are the same person. In this case, work on the POC first, and depending on how much time you have left, you have to quickly decide which portions of your application need to be hard-coded.

I usually spend 2~3 hours preparing for the presentation. While preparing for my slides, I like to use the KISS principle — Keep It Simple Stupid.

Remember, we are not giving a lecture and we want people to buy our idea. We want people to listen to us. So always make your slides simple, the simpler the better.

You don’t have too much time. Thus, keep your presentation and slides concise. Here I’m going to tell you the secret (formula) on how to prepare for a 5 star presentation:

  1. Problem statements — We want to solve some problems using technology. Prepare a few slides telling people about the background of the problem that you are trying to solve.
  2. Demo — People get bored easily. After telling people what the problem is, straight away tell them how you are going to solve it. Quickly show them your demo and WOW them. (Please make sure your demo works!)
  3. Compare — Do a comparison. Is there already an existing solution to the problem, if there is, how is your idea better?
  4. Hidden Slides — Always prepare some hidden slides that discuss potential future enhancements of the idea, business model, and what are some difficulties you faced during the hackathon. These can be useful during the Q&A.

6. Prepare for the prize

Get yourself prepared for the prize. Of course t’s not guaranteed, but If you follow all the steps I mentioned above, most likely you will win something.

7. Some beginner’s mistakes

One beginner mistake would be:

Not having a Proof-Of-Concept (POC) that could be showcased during the presentation. Simple idea, just put yourself in the judges’ shoes. If you were the judge, would you prefer someone who could show you something, say a website or mobile app, or someone who could only verbally tell you what their idea was? Which one would you think is more convincing?

Another mistake that many people make, especially those who first join a hackathon — focussing too much on building a functional or bug-free application. It is undeniable that this is right while building a proper product, but unfortunately, it does not work for the hackathon. Hardcoding is allowed here!

And the last one, also the one that I think people neglect — not spending enough time preparing for the presentation. The presentation is the only chance where you can sell your idea to the judges, the only time you can tell them: “my(give) idea(me) is(the) brilliant(prize)!”. So, you should always spend more time preparing for your presentation.

8. One last thing

Don’t forget to say bye to your lovely teammates. Bring the prize home and take a long rest.

After you have had enough rest, don’t forget to come back to this story and give me some claps!