How You Can Prepare for a Hackathon


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Just showing up at a hackathon and hoping for the best can work out fine. It can also be unfulfilling because you might not get everything out of it that you’d want. That’s where preparing just a little bit ahead of time can make a big difference. This post covers some areas you might not consider, such as adjusting your mindset, setting some goals and understanding which hackathon archetype best describes you.

Get Yo’ Mind Right

That is, put yourself into the hacker mindset and prime your brain for thinking creatively, efficiently, and adaptively. What’s that mean? Some things are better communicated via GIF.

Spongebob's Imagination

But really, be ready to make decisions quickly and rethink them even faster. Be prepared to come up with an idea or hear someone else’s idea, become really excited about it, and even start building it, only to switch to something totally different halfway through the event. You know, because #pivot.

Set Some Goals

Know why you’re at this hackathon and be explicit about those goals. I recommend your goal be to learn and have fun. If this is your goal, and you show up, I promise you’ll have a successful hack.

Another way of thinking about the “objective” of this event: in the final demos, judges usually determine winners of various prizes. Whenever I’m on a judging panel, one of the marks of successful teams are those who illustrate in their final demo that each and every person on the team learned something, taught something, and had a grand ol’ time all the while.

Whether you’re a hacker, hustler, or hipster, start ideating. More importantly, begin making mental notes (real notes, if you actually want to remember them) of all the things in your day-to-day life that bother you. Identify things you wish you could change and consider how you might be able to make those changes yourself and with the help of others. Or just let your mind wander toward something silly you want to create for giggles and… other things. As you think through various ideas, try to foresee the challenges one might face when building a solution. How could you get around them?

Know Your Hackathon Archetype

Successful hackathon teams usually have team members who represent the three major hackathon archetypes: Hustler, Hipster and Hacker. Here are some more tangible things you can do to prepare yourself:

Hustler

  • Hustlers are the business savvy. The folks who might not write code, but have a knack for finding product-market fit, marketing, and selling the dream.
    • Note: We’ve spent more time on these bullet points, because “business people” typically feel most out of place at a hackathon. We can change that!
  • Get ready to think about the product/service that you represent in a new way. Hacks aren’t about business viability and revenue models; they’re about building cool stuff that is fun to show off to your friends and colleagues and learning a thing or two along the way.
  • As you come up with your own ideas, consider how you would spec out a product/service and the resources necessary to execute on a plan. No idea where to start? Google it! (or ask us or another hacker)
  • Be ready to take someone else’s idea and run it through a “feasibility test” to help your team make decisions on what to build and why.
  • Grease your creative gears, refactor your brain to “sell” an idea–whether that’s the idea of what to build at the beginning or the idea of what you’ve built in the end. “Sell” to your team the right course of action within your project, then “sell” to the audience the experience that you and your team had–the things you learned, and the awesomeness that you created.
  • If you’re building something for fun (ie, not really solving a problem), this is your chance to dream up your ideal target customer and imagine into being the market that will make your project a smashing success. Yay, pretend!
    Start thinking about how you could incorporate the Hipsters and Hackers into the mix–what tasks could you easily teach to someone who wants to learn and has time to commit?

Hipster

  • The “designers” are gold at a hackathon because of the way they think through problems. Of course, all of the hustler criteria could easily apply to them, as well.
  • Look for inspiration–-cruise Dribbble, Behance, or your favorite sites (more than you already do).
  • Make sure you have the tools you’ll need (software, hardware, etc) to take on any task thrown at you. Don’t have a certain license or device? Ask and see if you can share with someone else.
  • Start thinking about how you could incorporate the Hustlers and Hackers into the mix–what design tasks could you easily teach to someone who wants to learn and has time to commit?

Hacker

  • The hacker–this is who you probably think of at a hackathon. Some of the best embody elements of hustlers and hipsters, as well.
  • Hackathons are a great time to learn something–maybe a new language, framework, or library.
    Know the tools out there that can help you bootstrap your application: APIs, starter kits (like hackathon bootstrap), and PaaS/IaaS (e.g. Heroku / DigitalOcean).
  • Start thinking about how you could incorporate the Hustlers and Hipsters into the mix–what tasks could you easily teach to someone who wants to learn and has time to commit?

No matter who you are, make sure you get plenty of sleep the night before. And on that note, as a reiteration, you are never required to stay overnight at a hackathon (though it is often an option.) No matter where or if your bed is, you should be planning out your strategy for staying rested and productive while working lots of hours throughout the event.

Now you should be more prepared and certainly excited for the upcoming hackathon. Read more hackathon best practices from the SendGrid team. We hope to see you soon.


Director, Developer Relations at @SendGrid. Passionate about bringing people together around things they love. I tweet at @TimFalls.

Tim Falls on Twitter

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