10 Tips for the Beginner Hackathon Participant

Hackathon in progress (VCU RAMHacks 2018) Photo Credit: Michael Lynn

As fall closes in, the hackathon season reaches its peak. Here’s a quick list of tips to maximize your opportunity as you plan to participate — and win your next hackathon.

1.Team up early. If you already have your team picked, great. If you don't, don’t waste time. Start introducing yourself to others looking for teammates. Relationships you build at this event will be invaluable as you grow professionally.

Most successful hackathon projects have a distinct set of components. If you’re building an application, you’ll likely have a front-end, a back-end (And database), an API. Effectively leveraging a team to distribute the work will ensure a better outcome.

2. Ask questions. The only stupid questions are the ones you don’t ask because these go unanswered. Document the answers you get and share them with your team. Most hackathons have a team of people onsite specifically to assist you. If you don’t see them or know who they are, ask the organizers. Good mentors will be available, and ready to assist.

3. Brainstorm. Take time to nurture ideas. Write down your ideas and share them with your team. You can teach curiosity, but you can nurture creativity by dedicating time to think. No idea is a bad idea. Write them down. When all else fails, start writing.

4. Communicate. Organize your team in such a way that you’ve got constant communication (usually via Slack) with your teammates, organizers, and mentors. Hackathons are typically held over 1, 2 days or sometimes longer. Divide the overall time allotted and schedule regular sessions to do checkpoints with your team. Leverage many mediums: in-person, chat and share documents online. Above all, communicate with kindness and be open to ideas with which you may not initially agree.

5. Drink water, eat healthy food. Your mental output is directly related to your nutritional input. There will likely be plenty of sweets, sugary drinks, and caffeine. Be careful to not overload on these. Try to eat nutritious foods that will help you focus.

6. API First. Build an API to expose your data. You’ll be able to iterate faster as well as experiment with different front-end platforms using a consistent data access methodology. A shameless plug — MongoDB Stitch provides a phenomenally easy way to get your data, and your API developed very quickly, efficiently so you can concentrate on other parts of your app.

7. Use source control. GitHub is free and provides a great way for you to store your code assets. You’ll thank me when someone inadvertently deletes or corrupts your code in some way. git pull will save your butt.

8. Use free services to host your project. In addition to GitHub, leverage free services to aid in the development, hosting and execution of your project. Another shameless plug, perhaps… MongoDB Atlas is a Database as a Service that starts at $0.00. This is one example — but there are more. The great thing about MongoDB Atlas is that you can start for free and when your project takes off and you need to increase the capacity you can simply change the configuration on the fly. Consider using a static hosting service such as Netlify. Netlify starts for free and also has direct, continuous integration with GitHub.

9. Don’t forget the demo! All of your hard work will culminate in the final demonstration. Don’t neglect planning for this portion of the hackathon. The best demos I’ve seen incorporate some sort of (very brief) slideshow, and a live demonstration of your project. Show the judges that you’ve thought about explaning your project to someone who has little or no idea what you’ve put together. Speak clearly, make sure each team member has a part to play in the demonstration. Be confident — in fact, confidence is more than 50% of your message. Engage the judges — ask them questions as you explain your work to check their level of understanding. Solicit and answer questions. If you don’t know the answer — “I don’t know, but I will find out.” is always acceptable.

10. Have fun. Above all else, hackathons should be enjoyable — fun. The pressure to compete will always be there and that’s good because it will drive you to do well. However, be sure to keep this in perspective — winning is nice but the goal should be to learn, grow and increase your exposure to people, technologies, and companies.

There you have it: 10 quick tips to help you enjoy and compete in your next hackathon. Do you have a question about hackathons, about data, building a project or anything — ask me. You can reach me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram or in the comments section below.

Developer Advocacy at MongoDB, Inc.