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March 3, 2014

Top 5 hackathon survival tips

By shutterstock_133146497

Hackathons are more popular than ever. Whether you’re thinking about going to your first hackathon, or you’re a veteran participant, here are a few important tips you can use to ensure you get the most out of your day or weekend.

1. Familiarize yourself with the schedule

One of the easiest ways to keep yourself from stressing out in an unfamiliar environment is to be aware of what’s happening and when. Many hackathons follow a generic format: pitches, team forming, hack time, demo time and judging. Being prepared for each section (and making sure not to miss them!) is key to success.

Pitches are when any participant (unless the hackathon has pre-screened them) is invited to pitch a project for the hackathon. It’s a crucial time when teams are generally formed for the hack, and it gives you a chance to meet most of the attendees in a short time. Weekend hacks often have pitches on a Friday night, making it a nice informal atmosphere to meet people separate from the “work” of the weekend. Team forming tends to happen soon after pitches.

The hack time/“work” is the core of the event of course – when you get things done. You can usually come and go as you please, so it’s up to you if you’re a hack-all-night type or if you head out in the afternoon. Make sure you make your preferences known to your team!

Demos and judging are at the end of the hack. These, like pitches, fall into the “don’t miss!” category. For one, you should be there to present your own project, but also be there to support your fellow hackathon attendees. Same deal with judging.

2. Prepare your pitch

Prepare a pitch for a project if you have any inkling of an idea at all. Pitching is a great way to get yourself in front of the crowd and let people know what you’re interested in, even if you don’t end up working on the project you pitched. Hackathon crowds are very supportive, so pitching is not as scary as you might think.

Even if you don’t plan to pitch a project, have your “elevator pitch” for meeting people. Hackathons are an extended networking event of sorts, so be prepared to tell people what you’re interested in, what skills you have, and what you’re looking to get out of the hackathon. For example: “I’m a Ruby developer by day, and I’m interested in working on a webapp in the fitness market. I want to make something interesting and meet new people.”

3. Be choosy about your team

When choosing your team, have a goal in mind for yourself. Some common goals include: learning a new technology, winning the hack (not everyone’s goal, you might just be there for fun!), or choosing to work with people who you particularly want to work with. It’s up to you what you want to get out of the hackathon, and keep in mind that your hackathon team is opportunity to get to know new people in an untraditional fashion.

4. Have a realistic scope

The most common mistake in a hackathon project is over an ambitious scope. During a hackathon, you should expect to build a prototype, not a complete end-to-end solution. The most successful teams are those that exercise wise project management, using their resources wisely and pacing themselves. Demos come very quickly at the end of a hack, and new teams sometimes forget that they need to have something ready to show. Be sure you can scale back your idea enough to be able to show something at demos, or you’ll be left with the prospect of showing a PowerPoint.

5. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself

Whatever it means for you, take the time to make sure you’re enjoying the event. For me, that usually means that I take some time to take a break and meet the rest of the teams, maybe seeing if I can offer a little bit of input here and there. You might want to make sure you talk to that particular person you want to learn from or even simply deciding that you’re going to end your “workday” before the sun sets to make sure you’re well rested for the next day. After all, you are participating in the event in your free time. Make sure you get something out of it, and don’t burn yourself out.

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About the Author

is a web developer based in Philadelphia, PA. She speaks publicly anywhere from local user groups to international conferences on development topics including HTML/CSS, Ruby, Python, and JavaScript, and she also teaches web development and JavaScript, and can be reached via her blog at or on Twitter @pamasaur.