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Hackathons 101: How to Hack Your Way to the Top

Bill Johnson provides some do's and don'ts that could help you win your next hackathon.


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Over the past few years, hackathons have become incredibly popular, drawing thousands of participants and offering enormous prizes. The success of public hackathons has led some companies to start hacking internally by hosting events that encourage employees to get creative and develop something new. Participants spend a day hacking away on various projects that cross all boundaries of the company and address the challenges in their industrry, sometimes resulting in real-world products. Shutterstock, SumAll and Point Inside have all incorporated hackathon projects into their products.

Aside from potentially gaining new product functionalities, companies can benefit from hosting an internal hackathon in a variety of ways. For example, the collaborative nature of a hackathon creates an excellent opportunity for team bonding across departments, and gives employees a fun, creative outlet that can help boost company morale. Also, even if a hackathon doesn't result in a fully developed product update, it can lead to innovative new ideas that could be developed into a new feature down the line. And the benefits extend beyond the walls of your company — by promoting a positive company culture, hackathons can also support external initiatives such as recruiting.

From an employee perspective, hackathons are a great opportunity to tap into your creative side, develop or show off your skills as a developer, and maybe even create the next great feature for your company's product. So what can team members do to create the winning hackathon project that becomes part of their company's product line?



We have seen more and more hackathon rookies turn into seasoned veterans who produce amazing work. I reflected on what has made these people and their projects so successful and distilled it down to some do's and don'ts that could help you win your next hackathon.

DO Plan Ahead — The time leading up to the hackathon is more critical than the event itself. When the hackathon begins, you should already have an idea of what you want to do, have thought through the technical challenges, and acquired any resources you may need like virtual machines, datasets or API access.

DON'T Work Alone — Hackathons can be a great time to learn something new on your own, but having a team with complementary skillsets will allow you to work more efficiently and learn from others who are already experts.

DON'T Think You Can't Contribute — Everyone brings unique skills to a team and all members need to contribute to be successful. Figure out how you can contribute most to the team and focus on that part of the project.

DON'T Be Afraid to Pivot — Like many successful startup companies, successful hackathon projects often pivot from their original idea into something else that was discovered along the way. If you think you've discovered something even better, or more useful during your project, switch gears and focus on that instead.

DO Develop a Realistic Scope — You must be realistic about what you can achieve during your allotted hackathon timeframe. Start by envisioning the "perfect" solution and then work backward until you reach a realistic scope. If you finish earlier than expected, you can always increase the scope and add new features and more polish.

DO Occupy a Different Space — A change of scenery can help get your creativity flowing and inspire new ideas. Instead of sitting at your desk like always, work in the kitchen, take over a conference room for the day, or just push some desks together into a different configuration.

DON'T Waste Time — You only have a small window to get things done so make sure you are using it effectively. If something isn't adding value to the project, do you really need to spend time on it or can it be cut from the project scope?

DO Take Shortcuts — Hackathons are more about prototyping and proofs of concept than production-level products. Take any and all shortcuts you can, like static or simulated datasets and "happy case" development, to meet your goal. If you first get to a working solution, you can then go back and work through any shortcuts or assumptions later without sacrificing the success of the project.

Hackathons can be daunting to the uninitiated, but if you plan and use your time effectively, you'll find yourself achieving things you didn't think were possible.

About the Author

Bill Johnson is the director of engineering at Point Inside, responsible for the Web Applications and Location Services teams. Prior to Point Inside, he worked at VMware, EMC and Sittercity. Johnson has also been a run coach for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America's Team Challenge for more than four years. He is an avid Seattle Sounders soccer fan, and holds a bachelor's degree in computer science from University of Michigan.



   
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