Top Ten Tips for a Successful Hackathon

Here’s Info-Tech’s Top 10 Tips for a successful hackathon.

  1. Get building faster, by using vendors and mentors. Vendors and their mentors offer a great opportunity for learning new skills, getting new perspectives, and sometimes even offering new tools (such as APIs) that can help you get your project up and running quickly. Info-Tech’s team of mentors includes Business Analysts, Design and UX experts, and experienced Developers that live and breathe product development day in and day out.
  2. Make something valuable by creating something YOU would want. Every reputable source on Innovation says that fully understanding your target user, their problems, and their use cases is essential to building a successful problem. One easy way to make this happen is to build a product for someone like you. Otherwise, recruit a few relevant target users to have available to bounce ideas off of to ensure the problem you are solving is compelling and valuable.
  3. Start from “The Compelling Pitch” to focus efforts on impactful work. A common pitfall of any hackathon is to assume the product will “speak for itself”. It won’t. When drawing up plans think through how the creativity, technical difficulty, polish, and usefulness of the project will be communicated, as this will determine the judges’ final score. Building out a fully featured product with elegant code is important in the real world, but in this short timeframe, it’s more important to be able to elegantly communicate the user experience, the primary design components, and most importantly the business value of the product. If you decide to continue building post-event, you can add all the bells and whistles later.
  4. Create a simple, valuable, working product by reigning in scope. Complexity is your enemy. When determining all the desired features of the product, organize them into product releases. What is the minimal viable product that you can build into a working product? Start with that. There’s nothing worse than having a fully functioning design that does nothing. In a typical organization, there are 3 things you can control on a project: Time, Resources and Scope. Unfortunately, you don’t have that luxury, so be aggressive in keeping the features to a maintainable number.
  5. Eliminate last minute failure by getting to production fast and iterating. Get your production environment up and running early. Code always runs differently on a local machine than it does in production. In addition, knowing that your have a working demo will keep stress levels down as deadline approaches. In the perfect world, the last few hours would be spent polishing design and ironing out bugs. But let’s be real, there’s always the temptation to do a little more in the way of features at the end, and this just isn’t possible if you haven’t yet promoted your code. Use a versioning tool, like GitHub, and deploy and smoke test regularly.
  6. Convincingly communicate your coolness, by practicing the perfect pitch and eliminating dependencies. Arguably the most important element of the project, this often gets left to the last minute. By thinking of this up front, you can start thinking about what should go in your pitch. When your main product components are completed start putting together your messaging, and practice your demo. Be careful not to rely on wifi, as there may be many people demoing at once.
  7. Here is a list of things to consider in your pitch:
    • The hook: Share a story or scenario in which the user of your product experienced some kind of pain or desired something better.
    • The basics: Who are the target users? What is the goal of the product? What is the broader pain point you are solving? Don’t assume everyone understands the problem you are trying to solve, as there are many teams and judges may not be experts in your area.
    • The walkthrough: How does it work? What are main features? What are the standout features? Why is it better than comparable products? Are there any cool, sophisticated or elegant components to your design or architecture?
    • The tagline: What do you want to leave them with? Why would they want to share or talk about your product to a colleague or the broader public? Don’t feel the need to go beyond your key message, as this will water it down.
  8. Get the most value out of the event by getting your priorities straight. Six months from how, what will you have gained from this event. Hackathons are about having fun, meeting new people, learning new things, and getting new ideas.
  9. Don’t over commit.  We want you to be able to accomplish what is reasonable in your dedicated time.

What will be more valuable when the event is over? New skills learned, new connections, or a fun new toy. The new toy will be fun for a while, but that skill or that connection may change your life.

Happy Hacking!