The secret sauce for successful hackathon experience

I summed up my rich hackathon experience and prepared a guide on how to successfully participate in hackathons. In this blog post, you will find advice on what to focus on before and during an event, how to organize the work process, and more.

My hackathon journey

I really love hackathons! My first hackathon happened in 2016 (Garage 48 Open & Big Data) when I just started my Master’s at Tartu University. Since then, I have participated in 10+ hackathons and won quite a lot of awards and I’ve mentored at 5+ hackathons. Now 5 years later, I can say that I mastered it! Through all those events, I found out how not only to enjoy the process but also achieve nice results.

If you want to get the most out of a hackathon, I compiled a guide for you: read carefully and think about how you can use it during your next event.

Disclaimer: The focus of my blog post is on the type of hackathons where you need to hack and get (at least almost) a working prototype in the end. There exist other types of events, for example, ideation ‘-thons’ – their goal is just to brainstorm some idea and present it verbally. They are more “soft”, but in this blog post, I concentrate on hardcore part of hacking. 

First hackathon Garage48 in 2016. Our team DataX Tech got a prize for best visualization.

0. The most important point before anything else

If you want to get only one piece of advice (the most important one), here it is: HAVE FUN. It took me a long time to realize, but it is actually true. You need to sincerely enjoy the process and the project you are working on. Nobody (hopefully) pushes you to have a sleepless night and get exhausted by hard work. If you are having fun with your team, you will be more relaxed, more in a moment, you will get more creativity flowing and feel more motivation to have something done. Make jokes and leave your serious face till Monday after the event. 

Recapping my last hackathon Junction 2021: how many jokes we did while working together! While making the final video, how much we laughed when listening to the synthesized Siri voice! It leaves very pleasant memories, although we were incredibly tired at 6am. 

Our final video submission for Junction 2021. Our team won Intelligent lighting Challenge and pitched in the finals among Top-10 teams out of 200+ projects.

1. Before hackathon

A. Preparation

It’s not a school, but you have to do your homework for the hackathon as well. Read about partners, challenges, all guidelines on the process, important deadlines, and the submission format, go through all materials provided by organizers before the event starts. Sometimes, pre-events happen (virtually or in-person as before Covid) – there you can get more ideas for your future project and make connections with other participants.

In an ideal scenario, you even think about potential ideas beforehand and come prepared with a specific project in mind (but remember – no code written before the official countdown starts!). It’s good, but not crucial: often, ideas come during the first hours after brainstorming with the team and talking to partners/mentors.

B. Team

I put the “Team” aspect in the “Before” section because it is much better to come together with like-minded people – persons you know, have connections to, and enjoy working together. At my first hackathons, I found a team during an event, but over the last years, I came equipped with teammates. 48 hours is a short period of time to get to know others. Reach out to people beforehand, learn about their skill sets and interests.

If a hackathon is quite large (>100 participants) and/or happening online, it can be hard to find teammates. On smaller events, the space is smaller, there are more opportunities to connect with most of the participants and you inevitably communicate more and find connections.

General advice which is applicable before, during and after hackathon: don’t be shy, leave your inner introvert at home. Talk to people queueing in the food line, sitting next to somebody, etc. Make new connections, utilize them during the event (from just saying “Hi!” to asking for feedback on your idea), keep the most interesting ones afterward, and follow up before the next similar event. Maybe they are not your teammates this time, but who knows how it turns around later.

Denys is my great teammate: we’ve been together through numerous events and we know each other very well: our skills, interests, strengths, required amount of coffee, etc.

Junction 2019: our 2-person team won the challenge by Helvar.

C. Tech prep: hackathon starter kit

Here are some links for you when you need to bootstrap a project from zero to hero – check them before the event, keep in mind what is available out there to avoid inventing the wheel or being stuck with the basics:

2. During hackathon

A. Idea

Hackathon is a place where you can do everything. So, you will have more fun when you try something new. Go out of your comfort zone. Especially during the brainstorming phase, go wild and suggest everything which comes to your mind. Not all of it will be included later, but your unleashed creativity will spin up the ideation process and encourage your teammates to do the same.

Talk to partners/mentors and discuss your idea with them. Ask them for feedback, follow up with questions. If you are solving a particular challenge/project and mentors/partners who know more details about it are available, ask what is important for them, clarify that you correctly understand their problems. If you show interest and they see a sparkle in your eyes, they will remember about you during evaluation. It’s also nice to show your progress during the hackathon, so follow up a couple of times. 

B. Project

After you have a stable idea of what you want to do, define the scope for your project. Think about the final product, what are the essential parts and what you want to see in the end. You can always add details later if you have time.

If it’s not an ideation hackathon, go tech: do real stuff, not pdfs or slides. You should have code written and committed to git.

To add even more fun, try to learn new tools, new programming languages, new libraries you have wanted to try for a long time.

At Junction 2019, we made a VR game Pingu. I haven’t done any VR games before, but I felt so good that I managed to understand the basics of WebVR, threeJS, and AFrame framework.

Junction 2020 will be remembered for the most unusual pitching experience: we presented our VR game Pingu in the Top-10 finals on a bus from Tartu to Tallinn.

C. Wellbeing

To boost your mental performance, your physical state should be in order. No doubt that eating healthy food improves brain activity. Stay hydrated, eat your veggie/fruits. Don’t go wild with junk food and energy drinks. If organizers provide only those, get your own food – yes, you don’t need to eat everything that is for free. 

I remember it as now: how good it felt once to eat fresh juicy clementine and creamy yogurt after a day on chocolate protein bars!

Coffee will usually keep you alive (although I suggest tea): you can survive a night without energy drinks, your body has the capacity for that. For a 48 hours hackathon, try to sleep the first night. The most interesting part will be during the second day and there you can pull all-nighter. But it really depends on the event schedule. For example, Junction hackathon has submission at 9am Sunday, basically it may happen that you go to sleep at 9am Sunday. But if you need to be alive and pitch on Sunday afternoon without strict morning submissions (like Garage48 hackathons, for example), you can have night sleep and have more energy on Sunday.

To sum up

Thanks for reaching the final part of my write-up: I hope my advice will make your participation in hackathons more pleasant and successful. And last, but not least: remember that only if you enjoy what you do, you will get what you want!

Let the hack be with you!

As now you know how to participate in hackathons, it’s the best time to set up where to apply new knowledge. Sources where you can find hackathons:

  1. Junction events
  2. Garage48 hackathons
  3. Weekly newsletter by AlphaGamma team

PS: My best teammate: Denys and his blog.

PSS: When I reflected on why I enjoy hackathons, I realized that there are many similarities with my other favorite activity from Uni times – mathematical competitions (or math olympiads). In both of them – hackathons and math competitions, there is a limited amount of time and very difficult problems to solve. You need to concentrate a lot, define the main parts and focus on them.