Hackathon advice from a first timer
About a month ago I attended my first ever hackathon, She Hacks 2016. And won a prize!
I was really worried I wouldn’t be good enough. When I signed up I downplayed my skills - I’m not a professional developer so the idea of claiming to be a “dev” for a hackathon felt like I was overstating my skills and my team would hate me when they got me instead of a real dev. The subtext of my application was basically “I’d love to do it but you should pick a “real” dev over me or put me in a team with an actual dev. I’m so glad they didn’t!
When I turned up on the day I didn’t write my role on my nametag because I wasn’t sure what I could offer to my team. Someone asked me what my role was and I said “maybe developer, maybe project manager” and they said “wow! You can do everything!”. What I’d actually meant was that I would like to be a developer but I wasn’t sure I could offer enough development skills to be called a developer and so I would be ok falling back to project management, which is more what I do in my every day job. Turns out I knew plenty to be able to act as a developer and learnt a whole lot too.
Don’t underestimate yourself! It’s likely that if you’re even considering attending a hackathon in your own time you’ve at the very least got passion – you’ll have something to offer.
The second thing I was worrying about was that I was flying solo and didn’t know anyone. Well of course! I’d only moved to Sydney two months prior and hadn’t met many people yet, it was understandable I didn’t know anyone. Really I was worried for nothing. Everyone was so friendly and a lot of people were in a similar situation. Luckily there was a big spread of pizza and soft drink for dinner so I could busy myself with getting food while scoping out my new potential friends. It’s easy to assume that everyone there knows everyone else from previous events and hackathons, but it turns out that there were lots of first timers like me. I started chatting to someone who also looked like she didn’t know anyone and soon enough a little group of women had formed and we were happily chatting away. Phew. This wouldn’t be so terrifying after all.
If you don’t know anyone hackathons are a great way to change that! Strike up a conversation, you’ll either meet someone like you or you’ll learn a cool new thing you didn’t know about!
The organisers had set up a Slack group and I’d nominated in my application to be allocated to a group beforehand. I set about trying to find my group (I had their names and profile pictures) but I could only find 1! Turns out two of our pre-formed group couldn’t make it at the last minute, and another just didn’t show. Later on I found out that quite a few people didn’t show up.
If you sign up for a hackathon please attend or cancel your place with plenty of notice, it’s not fair to take the place of someone who could have attended.
The first event of the evening was pitches. This is where people who have ideas stand up in front of everyone and pitch their idea to the group. They generally give an overview of why their idea is important, what they’d like to make and what skills they already have in their group and which ones they still need. This is it, I thought, my team only has two people and no idea! I had one idea I could pitch. So I told my team member, a business analyst and budding data person, what my idea was and she loved it! At the last minute we threw together a bit more of an idea and we stood up on stage together and I pitched!
Going into the room I never imagined doing this, but everyone was so welcoming and it wasn’t terrifying at all. I even got a little applause when I said that while I wasn’t a dev yet I was learning.
You probably have an idea in you, share it! It’s unlikely to be silly.
It turns out I didn’t even need to make a pitch though, there were plenty of great ideas already in the room and I would have happily joined one of them. But people liked my idea too! After pitching we had a couple of people come up and join us. A couple of mentors dropped by to say they really liked the idea too and were keen to see what we made. So, we had an idea and a group – three devs (I’m including myself in that) and a project manager/marketer. We talked through our idea for a while but soon it was time to call it a night. She Hacks encourages everyone to talk care of themselves during the event and go home and have a good night’s sleep.
Look after yourself. Hackathons are full on and you won’t be performing at your best if you don’t.
The Saturday started with a free coffee from one of the sponsors (thanks Prismatik!) and a bit more planning. Overnight we’d been sharing research on the slack group and one of our team had found an existing app that worked in a very similar way to my idea. Oh no. In retrospect I would have pushed through with the idea – in a hackathon you’re generally not expected to come up with a completely unique idea, you just need to find that “point of difference”. I think my idea did have a point of difference – it was a very simple idea with none of the bells and whistles (and sign up barriers) that this similar app had, and aimed at women rather than business. Chatting to mentors later they agreed, we could’ve continued on with the idea. But in the moment it seemed very important that we had a unique idea, and I was happy to acquiesce so we could get working on something. I worried that if we spent too much time discussing points of difference and researching similar ideas we wouldn’t have a product to show at the end of the day.
Don’t bike shed or spend too much time research what others have done, create something!
Luckily someone else had a great idea they’d wanted to pitch but hadn’t. We “pivoted” our project and got to work. First things first we had to decide what we wanted to make. After discussing, a mentor suggested we each draw 6 boxes on a piece of paper and then spend 5 minutes filling in those boxes with what features we thought it should have. Then, we’d each spend another minute explaining to the group what we’d written, and from that form a consensus of what features were good and should be included.
Don’t get too attached to your idea and don’t be afraid to pivot. If you end up not following through with an original idea that doesn’t mean it will never see the light of day.
Once we’d decided what features we should have, we drew some very rough mock ups of each screen. At this point we only had a couple of hours of actual hacking time left to us, so I suggested we carve up the work and get going. Everyone was keen to get into making the wire frame prototype (one of us had found a great tool for iPhone prototyping) but I suggested that our marketer might be able to get started on our final presentation. I’m glad she was happy to because she produced an amazing Canva presentation with lots of data to support our idea.
Project management is important, carve up the work to make sure you’ll have a product within the timeframe.
A couple of hours later we had a prototype app that we could demonstrate and a very impressive presentation. We spent the next hour working out what we were going to say and practising. The team coached each other to make sure we were all comfortable and within time. Like the rest of the day it was pretty frantic getting everything ready and we were done just in time! We presented our idea with all the other teams and wow there were some great ideas and impressive demonstrations. My contribution was to demo our app in front of everyone and I’m very happy to say that it went well. After the presentations were finished the judges went off to deliberate and everyone voted for the people’s choice award. We were all so buzzed from the work (and the sugar!) and we excitedly chatted and congratulated others on their great ideas and presentations.
Put in the work on your presentation, it’s what the judges will base their decision on.
I went into this hackathon thinking I had no skills to offer, that I wouldn’t know anyone and I wouldn’t have any ideas. Well, it turns out that I left a winner! Our team won the people’s choice award! My Arduino (thanks MYOB!) is going in the pool room and my award is going on my resume. So that’s my final piece of advice:
Just go for it. You’ll never know what will happen. You might win!