How to Survive Your First Hackathon Part IV: The 7 Tips I Learned as a Newbie

This post is part of a series I created detailing my experience at my first hackathon, to read part I, Setting goals and preparing for my first hackathon, click here. To read part II, Attending my first hackathon and rubbing elbows with the sponsors, click here. To read part III, Surviving a hackathon when failure seems imminent, click here.

Going home around midnight on Day 2 was probably my biggest mistake.  I had realized that night that I would fail in getting my project completed by Day 3.  However, I had gone home at the end of Day 2 with the intentions of waking up by 4am, finishing at least a prototype draft of my project by 10am, and submitting it not to compete, but to get feedback from the judges and sponsors on Day 3.  I did wake up early, but more ill than had I been on Day 2.  Staring at my screen at the wee-hours of the morning made my eyes feel like they were bleeding. I finally gave up, took some Sudafed, and rested.

Overall, I enjoyed being at the hackathon, meeting people, and challenging myself on a project that was out of my comfort zone.  Feeling less intimidated, I already signed up to attend another hackathon, Code til Dawn which is nearby, has more participants, and is only 24 hours.  Though disappointed, I had to remind myself once again on Day 3 that I didn’t go to the hackathon to compete, I went to learn new things.  If anything, I feel like I accomplished that goal.

Attending your first hackathon soon? Here is my advice on what you should do if you are a code newbie:

  1. Come prepared. While most hackathons provide food, wifi, printing, and some utilities, most are BYOD.  If you have an idea in mind of what you want to build, make sure you have all the software you need downloaded before the event.  If you don’t have a hardware resource you need, work the room, and introduce yourself to someone who does.
  2. Be honest about what you don’t know.  I found that when I put my weaknesses on the table, there are usually one or more people willing to help me out. Don’t assume everyone there is experienced, many may be newbies just like you. Leave your ego at the door and prepare to be uncomfortable.  Your ability to build under pressure is the main challenge of participation.
  3. Find at least 3 people who know your language or a language you want to learn.  I’m pretty proficient with python as a language, and I wanted to know more about how others were using it in their projects. I also wanted to learn how to integrate frameworks such as Flask or Django with with my scripts. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to connect with other python developers based on the participant pool.  However, at larger events, finding one or a few people who you share a common language with shouldn’t be too difficult.
  4. Try to connect and organize a team.  I was at disadvantage because I didn’t have a team to work with and my project was fairly large.  With no one to distribute tasks to, I didn’t finish.  If you’re a newbie, find a group and join a team as soon as possible. Unless you’re a seasoned programmer, a hackathon is not the type of event to go it alone.
  5. Talk with the sponsors, they are potential employers.  Not only did I find the sponsor reps at the event, I introduced myself and asked them questions about their companies. Which leads to my next tip…
  6. Follow up. Blog and share ideas to build online community around issues, themes, and trends discussed at the event.  Don’t just take business cards, do the work in connecting with others afterwards. Stay in touch with your team members and offer to take a sponsor or two out to lunch to discuss internship opportunities.

My final tip and what I learned the most from my first hackathon: don’t beat yourself up.  I went through a period of “should’ve/could’ve/would’ve” thinking that afternoon after I realized I failed.  I could have familiarized myself with python web frameworks to help out on the backend, I should have used tools like Node to assist with coding the javascript, I would have used App Inventor to prototype the app component of my project.  Doing all those things would not have changed anything: I was fighting against time, being sick, and my own high expectations.

As a code newbie, don’t worry about creating the perfect submission or winning. Focus on completing your project, connect with others, and learn new skills you can use later.  Your first experience at a hackathon is whatever you make it.  Only you can decide what you want to get out of it, so make the best of your time.

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