How To Win A Hackathon
“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” – Leo Tolstoy
The meaning behind the word Hackathon has evolved. In general, a Hackathon is an event with a tight schedule and timeline where developers come together and crack coding problems. Hackathons come in many varieties.
For example, one style of event is where participants solve business problems with the use of tech in various sectors, such as FinTech, HealthTech, GovTech, etc. However, whatever shape or form a Hackathon is, one thing that is always constant is limited time: mostly Hackathon’s will last a day or two.
Given all the variables, what is the optimal way to win a Hackathon?
Let’s start with Leo Tolstoy’s quote at the top. Time is something we cannot control but something that we can make use of strategically by staying calm and patient.
In a Hackathon, you are either given a set of problems or you have to come up with your ideas. Take a moment to think about why you are doing this. As an individual, you are committing your time (which is priceless) for a Hackathon organised by someone with their personal and/or organisational aims in mind.
Now you can jump into the problem.
Spend time Googling any solutions available out there or any resources that you can use to build the solution. This will help you prioritise, how much you need to create and how much you re-use in the given time. When working on ambitious things, it’s easy to go off track while thinking about solution cosmetics. Focus on the key propositions, spend time on planning how you can best deliver your solution within the given time. Plan what skills, inputs, and expertise are required to produce the solution. Finally, write down the solution and go over it a few times with the team to refine it.
In a Hackathon, you can be put in a situation where you get to pick your team or sometimes you are put into a team by the organisers. However the event is styled, make sure you get the most out of it. This is the most interesting part. Know the skills and expertise of everyone in your team. Good communication is the key here.
Everyone will feel the pressure of the deadline, so don’t push anyone. Make use of the opportunity to learn transferrable skills from your teammates. Even though the Hackathon will last for a limited time, the learnings and good relationships created with your team will last longer. A bit like how organisers have invested time and money to get most out of the Hackathon, this is also an opportunity for you to invest your time for positive returns by working and learning with your teammates.
You will have to be Jack of all Trades here, so make sure you awaken your inner multi-tasker. However, bear in mind that you have limited time, so split the work appropriately as well and try to shadow each other.
Build, Break and Repeat. However, beware of not breaking what you build too many times, And also be aware of breaking things at the same point every time. Set micro-sprints, i.e. small deadlines. For example, if you have 4 hours for execution (to produce the solution), divide internal deliverables in 4 sprints of 1 hour each or 2 sprints of 2 hours each. At the end of every micro-sprint measure the results achieved and plan forward. Whatever is missed from your plans, you will always have a chance to put it in the presentation.
Rapid feedback will help you validate your solution before pitching it to the judges. Speak to other participants if you are not too worried about your idea being stolen. Speak to the organisers. Go outside, speak to people on the street, call friends, etc. Gather as much feedback as you can.
Refine and Present
Apply all the validated learnings to the idea. By this point, you will have very limited time so don’t try to push all of the feedback into your solution – some points can be captured on the slide deck. Produce a crisp and clear presentation and ask the organisers for the judging criteria so that you can make sure you align your presentation to it.
Watch your language. This means making use of the vocabulary that is relevant to the solution and practice the delivery of key pointers. However fast or slow you present, or whether you add a pause when you make a point affects your connection with the audience and also how they perceive your solution. It is always good to use Ethos (Establishing your authority to speak, i.e. Why should the audience listen to you), Logos (Your argument to convince your audience), and Pathos (Tie user emotions around your pitch) for reference and improving your presentation.
In your team, decide who will present and start practising. Practice as much as you can before seeing the judges. Finally, when your name is called on the stage, be calm and patient. This will help you be in the moment and connect with your audience. Also, keep in mind that, “Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you present, how you present matters the most”.
Enjoy your time to shine!
After the Hackathon, make sure you reflect on your starting point and what you learned and achieved during the Hackathon, because this is the real win for you.
Whilst any prizes and kudos you and your team win will be remembered for a limited time, the connections and learnings you acquire from a Hackathon will be lifelong.