February 24, 2015
By Steven Yang 20x20

So I've attended a few hackathons in the last couple of months. I decided that it may be helpful to introduce people to these kind of events and hopefully it can get more people interested. I've learned a few tricks along the way and will share them in this guide!

What is a Hackathon?

Quite simply, a hackathon is an event where people get together and make stuff. Typically, the stuff that people make at these events are programs and hardware. If you're not a programmer and engineer - don't worry! Projects can literally be anything and the skillsets that go into them are diverse.

The event usually lasts two to three days. In these days, a lot of different mini-events take place. The first day has the opening ceremony where the organizers give a pep talk to get everyone excited. Then the event sponsors talk about their respective companies. From there, people are free to do what they wish. I will be covering all these activities later in this article. On the final day of the event, people present what they've made.

Meeting People

Probably the best thing about attending a hackathon is that it helps you connect with people who share similar interests. I like going to events alone as it forces me to meet and work with people I've never met before.

Keep talking to people even after you form a team. You never know who you'll click with until you get to know them. You'll be surprised what you can learn by just having a quick chat.

Sponsors will have booths set up around the event where you can speak to a representative. They are usually there to advertise their business but sometimes they try to recruit new talent. If you're interested in working for their company or are just looking for an internship, talking to them directly is a perfect way to get your foot in the door.

Get All the Swag

Sponsors usually give out a lot of free stuff as a way of promoting their service. I made a mistake early on in thinking I didn't need to try to go for this free stuff right away.

People really like free things. The really nice things sponsors give out run out pretty quickly - like shirts. At a typical event, I usually get 3-4 shirts. This has greatly helped in my frugal lifestyle as I'm able to keep myself dressed with fresh attire. I also get a bunch of pens and stickers.

Sponsors use swag to incentivize meeting them, so be sure to talk to them!

To Sleep or Not to Sleep

Traditionally, people take great pride in staying awake during these events. The reason is because the event only lasts a certain amount of hours and people believe putting every single minute into their projects will give them an edge.

Through experience, it seems people do after all need sleep. You should stay up as much as you can while you are on a productive roll. But when it gets to be really late an you're slowing down to almost nothing, it's really not worth it to stay awake. If you really are adamant about not sleeping, it may be really beneficially to take a short 30 minute nap. You'll be surprised how much of an energy boost you can get from this.

Building the Project

It is best to go with the best idea you have. The goal is to create anything that you're interested in making. There's no point in putting yourself through a marathon work session if you're working on a project you don't believe in, so the idea is really important.

Once you thought of it, dissect the idea so you get to the very core. It may be nice to add a lot of fancy features, but for the first prototype, you need it to do what it's supposed to do. A lot of time may be wasted focusing on a feature that doesn't belong to the core, so cutting it may be needed to finish on time.

The prototype, in theory, should be finished in the first twelve hours. If you can get something working and testable in that amount of time, you're pretty much set! You can then allocate the rest of your time to polishing the product by adding extra features, making it pretty and of course, testing.

The Final Day

On the last day of the event, you should hopefully have the project complete and ready to go. You should spend the time planning how you will present your project to other people. Think of the main features and figure out how to communicate it them.

At the end of the event, the projects are showcased and judged. This portion of the event is different for every hackathon.

Conclusion

Hackathons are some of the best places to ignite creativity and productivity. If you ever have the opportunity, definitely go to one!

This article was written by Steven Yang. Follow him on Twitter