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How to win a hackathon — without coming first

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This one article was originally published on .cult by dragos Strainu. .sect is a Berlin-based developer community platform. We write about all things career, create original documentaries and share countless other untold stories from developers around the world.

From my experience at hackathons, I understand that it’s not just about winning first place. You participate to learn something new, make connections and have fun.

During my first hackathons, I was really focused on winning and didn’t see all the other benefits of attending a hackathon. When I didn’t win, I was so upset I almost wanted to forget the whole event.

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Over time, I noticed that hackathons always attract different kinds of people, with different skills. Many of them join to learn something new or to train specific skills such as programming, pitching, designing or business skills.

To actually win first place at a hackathon, you have to combine several components. You need to have a good team of people with different skills. You need a good idea and an even better execution. You need programmers, designers, speakers, researchers and people with good communication skills.

Of course, you don’t always (or usually) have all those things. Maybe your team isn’t perfect or the hackathon topic is particularly complex, making it difficult to come up with a good concept. After attending more than 30 hackathons, I’ve come to understand that instead of focusing on winning first place, I can achieve a lot more by focusing on acquiring new skills and helping others. Treat winning first place as a bonus – the icing on the cake of all the new things you’ve already learned.

Now let’s take a look at what you need to do to acquire skills for your needs and how you can win without coming first.

1. Win as a newbie

Maybe it’s your first or second hackathon and you don’t know what to do or how your skills can help the team. Do not worry. Take the time to learn how hackathons work, its key components and what skills are required from the participants. Don’t wait for someone to give you tasks. Ask about it, propose ideas, brainstorm with your team members. Help teammates with their tasks, practice pair programming or review the design and propose ideas. Discuss with mentors and ask for advice not only about the hackathon, but also about personal/professional topics. See what tools other participants use, such as programming languages, code editors, design apps, planning and collaboration tools. Ask why they prefer these tools over others.

The action list:

– Ask for tasks
– Help your teammates
– Talk to mentors
– Learn new tools
– Lots of fun

2. Win as a programmer

Apparently you are already familiar with some programming languages, tools and frameworks to build web/mobile apps. You can use the hackathon to demonstrate your coding skills and learn new languages ​​and frameworks. If you already know the backend, try doing the prototype in a different language or framework. Or try switching to frontend for this hackathon. Focus on learning specific libraries. Watch tutorials, read best practice articles. Use as many functions from the library as possible to understand the pros and cons of using it, see use cases and alternatives.

The action list:

– Learn a new language/framework/library
– Try a different programming domain (gaming/backend/frontend/machine learning)
– Discuss best practices with other programmers
– Learn new programmers
– Lots of fun

3. Win as a designer

Most hackathons don’t have time for complex coding solutions. Sometimes even the most impressive designs win without any backend implementation. As a designer, you need to understand that you can save your team with a great UI and UX. In addition, don’t forget to focus on learning new things. Try a mobile/desktop/10-foot design for your app. You can also try different tools or design systems. Use a prototyping tool that simulates the behavior of a real app.

The action list:

– Create multiple sketches for your application
– Try to use different tools than used before
– Consult with your team
– Lots of fun

4. Win as a speaker

Each team must delegate a person who will present their final product to the public. Usually, the speaker has to start preparing the presentation from the very beginning of the hackathon, because judges only see what the speaker is presenting. So you have to convince them all that your solution is the best. Remember that a simple and clear demonstration is the key!

To get the most out of a hackathon as a speaker, practice expressing your ideas to your teammates, paying attention to your posture, gestures, and how you deliver your speech. Going through these steps will make you more confident and persuasive, qualities that are critical to being a great speaker.

The action list:

– Plan your presentation flow
– Try to express your solution clearly
– Rehearsing for your teammates
– Lots of fun

5. Win as a manager

As a hackathon manager, you have to adapt to short-term projects. There are several things you can do to deliver an MVP on time. You can divide the tasks among your team members depending on their abilities, so make sure everyone is involved and doing their best to achieve the common goal. Try to have a meeting every 5-6 hours to discuss updates and next steps with your team. It is also good practice to split tasks into sub-tasks in order to monitor the implementation process. Make sure everyone understands their duties and performs well.

The action list:

– Organize regular meetings with your team
– Practice time management
– Try to divide the responsibilities into subtasks
– Lots of fun

6. Win as a mentor

A hackathon mentor is like the professor for all participants. Your role as a mentor is to generate enthusiasm and demonstrate your willingness to help. In addition, you can increase your knowledge by teaching others things you are good at. You can also recommend the latest tools and frameworks you’ve already worked with. In addition, you can share specific situations you encountered and how you solved them. Try to explain using simple methods and make sure everyone understands what you want to say. You can even prepare a presentation on the main topics of the hackathon, including some hacks and tricks.

The action list:

– Prepare a presentation on the hackathon topic
– Approach each team to see everyone’s progress
– Introduce your help
– Share your experience
– Lots of fun

7. Win as host

The host has the most important duties and responsibilities during a hackathon. As organizers, you can make this event run smoothly so that people stay with positive emotions. You could organize some extra activities for fun, for example interactive or board games, maybe quizzes or challenges. Also try to inform everyone about each phase of the hackathon so that everyone can organize their time.

The action list:

– Make a plan to arrange each stage of the event on time
– Make sure everyone is aware of the hackathon program
– Announce when meals are ready
– Try taking photos/videos to capture the most colorful moments
– Lots of fun

8. Win as a volunteer

As a volunteer you get to see inside how a hackathon is organised. You can get involved in the search for partners and funds, mentors and speakers. As a suggestion, try doing as many activities as you can to find out what you enjoy doing the most. You can try your management skills to properly estimate resources, or you can demonstrate your great communication skills when speaking with sponsors and partners.

The action list:

– Try different roles and activities
– Make connections between participants and organizers
– Increase your circle of friends
– Lots of fun

9. Win as a sponsor company

IT companies are very supportive when it comes to sponsoring hackathons. This is a win-win collaboration for both companies and participants. Individuals familiarize themselves with the culture of these companies and can apply for their jobs and internships. Companies, on the other hand, can offer a variety of job opportunities to a number of talented and diligent candidates. Companies can also offer token prizes to all participants to make everyone feel rewarded.

The action list:

– Pay attention to each team
– Invite participants for interviews
– Promote your company’s values
– Organizing workshops on hackathon topic
– Lots of fun

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