Five useful things to know if you're going to a hackathon (2/2)

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright September 12, 2018
It's not just developers that go to hackathons. If you're going to one, here are five useful things to know, gleaned from experienced organizer Sabeen Ali
Sabeen Ali, CEO, AngelHack
Sabeen Ali, AngelHack

Over the past seven years, startup AngelHack has been right at the heart of the growth in hackathons — two-day gatherings of developers and innovators that organizations arrange so that they can generate new applications and product ideas. Yesterday I set out five expert tips for running a hackathon based on the experience of the company's founder and CEO Sabeen Ali across hundreds of such events. Today we've got five more tips, this time telling you what to expect if you go to a hackathon as a participant.

1. Just go, you'll be welcome

Although it may all sound rather daunting for the uninitiated, hackathons are very welcoming places, according to Ali. Her company, which is majority owned and staffed by women, is also proud of its record in opening up its community from a lowly 4% women in the early days to now 20% out of a total 150,000. Even if you don't know how to code, you'll find a way to fit in, she says:

The culture in and of itself is a very open and inclusive culture. People are there to learn and meet new people.

A lot of our community is quite diverse, they're also there for the first time. Our attendees are as young as eight years old and as old as 64, so everyone has a bit of nerves and they're bringing some sort of baggage or insecurities or skill sets also.

If you feel comfortable coming in pairs or groups, then do that. If you feel comfortable just coming and observing your first hackathon, that's totally OK as well.

If you want to jump right in and be a part of a team, all teams can use someone that can help on the Internet and google stuff and research stuff, or someone who's great at putting together a Powerpoint presentation. All teams can definitely use somebody who can do a coffee or Red Bull run. So there's always value that you can provide as long as you're open to the experience.

Worst comes to worst, you can have some amazing food, listen to some great music, maybe meet a few people and then go home and get a good night's rest and maybe come back the next day and watch the demos.

2. Hackathons aren't just for developers

The most useful ideas come when developers get to work with other people who understand how the product will be used, says Ali. Therefore a hackathon works best when there's a mix of developers and product managers, sales and marketing people, or end users, she explains:

To ask a developer to create a product without having any type of context or time to interface with the end users is probably not the best use of time. Developers are good at coding and the best way to take advantage of their skill set is to provide them with all of the other context and details, and access to information.

3. Some people are serial hackathon attendees

A subculture has built up around hackathons and some people actively seek out events and prepare very thoroughly. But all that experience and preparation doesn't necessarily give these hardcore participants an advantage, says Ali:

There are serial hackathon-ers that literally do it as their profession. And then there are ones that go occasionally and try their hand at a particular hackathon because they're free that weekend, or it's that topic that they're particularly interested in.

The great thing about a hackathon though, is that you can never really predict where the winning ideas are coming from. You can have somebody that has been preparing for over a month, but most hackathons say that you cannot create any code until the event actually starts at 1:00 pm of that day.

So you can come up with your designs, your wire frames, your business concept, you can even start putting together your pitch. But you can't start coding until the event starts and that immediately levels out the playing field between all of our attendees.

4. If you're coding, don't expect any sleep

Open hackathons run over a weekend so that people can go without having to take time off work. It usually starts at 9:00 am on a Saturday and runs through, non-stop, to around 4:00-5:00 pm on the Sunday. AngelHack has tried other schedules, but Ali says this timing is just the right amount to formulate the idea, code it, and then do the presentation to the judges:

That's just the sweet spot of giving developers an opportunity to get familiar with their surroundings, familiar with the tech, tinker around with a couple of different ideas, settle on one. Then probably by midnight, 1:00 am, is when they really start coding the project or the idea that they've settled on and then it takes them throughout that night. Then the next day to actually prepare the pitch.

We've done shorter events where I've seen the quality of the projects really not match those of the overnight, two-day hackathons.

That overnight ingredient is essential to maintaining the momentum, she adds:

Then we've done hackathons where they didn't have the overnight element. People just go home, they get distracted, they go to sleep, they lose their focus. Then the next day they're a bit disjointed as far as what they were building the day before.

5. Expect the unexpected

Whether you prepare extensively or not at all, you never know what to expect, says Ali, because there are so many variables you can't predict:

You really don't know how the judges are going to approach each of the projects. We have our judging criteria, but then there's personal experience. There's also so much context that happens around the hackathon. You never know if someone's going to show up and build the same idea and do it better. Or do it differently.

That honestly is the organized chaos, this messy part of hackathons, that I absolutely love and I love to try to make sense of ... We just have to be OK with it.