We go to a lot of events, many of them hackathons. We’ve previously shared how to win and the principles of a killer hackathon demo. In this post, I want to equip you with the tools and ideas that will help you build something amazing at your next hackathon. As you read through this post, create a checklist and be sure to add in your own ideas, and if you don’t mind, please do share your own tips with us in the comments below.

Goals & Purpose

Spend a few minutes defining what you hope to achieve at the hackathon. Use that definition to help focus. Your toolbox needs will shift depending upon your goals and purpose.

Answer the question, what would a successful hackathon look like for me personally?

  • Fame and glory?
  • Experimentation and learning?
  • Love of the craft?
  • Fun?

Your answers will help frame your toolbox strategy.

Preliminary Research

Start with the event website and note the main parameters of the hackathon:

  • Date(s)
  • Location
  • Total available hack time
  • Supported APIs (usually, these are provided by the sponsors)

Read enough of the documentation for each API to learn what functionality is available. You may want to create a list of each API’s key features with links to the relevant documentation. At this point, it will be useful to start capturing hack ideas with your favorite idea capture tool. Use the total available hack time to help determine the scope.

Once you have a few ideas down on paper, investigate what APIs you will need to breathe life into your hack.

Plan for Collaboration

Remember, don’t get stuck on finding the perfect hack idea. Once you get to the venue and start collaborating with others, you may decide to create something totally different. Through completing this preliminary research, you will be able to bring many ideas to your team and the preperation will help you get from idea to working hack much quicker.

If there is a social component to the event, take advantage and begin to establish relationships. For example, if there is a event wiki where you can start sharing ideas, hop on in and contribute. With a clear understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, you can begin to search for ideal partners.

The Essentials

Internet connectivity and power will be a basic requirement. In some cases, Internet connectivity can be unreliable at a hackathon and power sources may be in awkward locations. Bring a MiFi and power strip, and if you plan to share your WiFi connection, setup the SSID and password in advance.

Physical Tools

Bring paper and your favorite pencils/pens. It often helps to step away from the computer and transmit your thoughts from hand to paper. You will likely create many throw-away prototypes and paper can be the fastest method to bounce your ideas off others and to rethink your own ideas.

If the venue does not provide whiteboards, you may want to bring your own. It is easier to collaborate with several team members in this manner. If there are mentors or sponsors present, pull them over to your sketched out ideas and gain quick feedback.

Software Tools

Update your development environment with any relevant SDKs. If you discover that your favorite language is not supported, ensure the supported language you choose is ready to go on your machine.

Proficient hackathon developers often use a few API testing tools that make a big difference in decreasing development time:

  • Learn how to use a webhook debugger. Before writing any code, you can determine if the API can support your idea.
  • Gain proficiency in an API testing tool so that you can test, debug and iterate faster.
  • Be prepared to use localtunnel or similar so that you can easily allow your localhost to talk to web APIs.

Lastly, prepare a hosting environment for your hack in advance and test your API choices. First, focus on a local environment, then find a complementary host so that your hack can live and breathe on the Internet.

Consider a Hardware Hack

You might consider adding some hardware into the mix, such as an Arduino or LeapMotion. Spend some time learning the device’s API, or create your own library. Bring backup batteries if necessary, making sure you have all the power you need.

Armed with these tools, you can work efficiently toward achieving your hackathon goals.

Do you know of any tools or strategies that will help build an awesome hack? If so, please take a moment and share them with us. Thanks for reading and please let us know what awesome hacks you come up with.

Photo by Mark Hunter

Elmer Thomas is SendGrid's Developer Experience Engineer. His mission is to help SendGrid live up to its slogan: "Email Delivery. Simplified" by improving the lives of developers, both internally and externally. Via all sorts of hackery, of course. Follow his exploits on Twitter and GitHub.