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The Hackathon Survival Guide: Seven Skilful Steps

Deving for good

By Matthew Gaskell

Since the dawn of civilization man (or woman or anyone of the other letters in the LGBTQMNOP alphabet) has always sought an arena in which to show dominance. This has traditionally been done through skill, strength and endurance as seen from the gladiators in the coliseum through to the Matadors in the bullring to the plant based “idiathletes” of Iron-Man. The competition may have changed but the intrinsic need to prove dominance remains the same.

It is natural, that with the rise of Uber, Instagram and all things tech, that the next leviathan of dominance should be nerdy.

Behold “The Hackathon”! A testing ground for innovation, ideas and life-changing technology. A competition for teams of tech crunching solutionists to churn out the next Netflix, Snap Scan or Tinder.

These time-framed events are usually a 24- or 48-hour marathon for teams to build a tech-based solution to a predefined problem which sets the scope and difficulty of the contest. Teams compete for various prizes that are given out during the evening with the main trophy awarded at the end. Competing in one of these events can go from initial competitiveness to just surviving. Thus, below I have outlined some tips and tricks to surviving a hackathon.

  1. Get the team going quick
    ‘Win the morning win the day’, is the mindset in which one should enter a hackathon. Much like most things the key to success is starting off well. Get an idea for what you want to achieve out of the hackathon. Make sure everyone is on board and knows their station. Most teams end a hackathon without a functioning concept, so set realistic targets.
    Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your revolutionary idea.
  2. Build now polish later
    Once you have started, keep going until you have something that functions. Even if it is held together with duck tape and bubble gum. The road to prizegiving is long, and frought with many distractions. People get tired, team members get distracted and worst of all frustrations reach a boiling point. These potholes generally come towards the end of the hackathon so write code while the coffee is hot.
  3. Espionage
    Hackathons are mini versions of the cold war. Know what the competition is up to. Most events are out in the open so you can walk around and see what others are doing. Guage your ideas against those of other teams.
  4. Sugar is for emergencies only
    Stamina is key. Staying awake while pumping out lines of code faster than the Matrix, needs to be sustainable. Sugary energy drinks may provide a quick fix of focus, but they will ultimately cause you to crash. So, save these for the big push at the end. Sustain your nerdy need for speed with caffeine and low GI foods throughout the hackathon. Most importantly… stay hydrated.
  5. Dress for success
    This is not just a lame pop song from the 80s; this is hackathon modus operandi. Dressing according to a theme helps you stand out to the judges, which will come in handy when prizes are given out. A lot of hackathons give out big prizes for team spirit and dressing up, so even if your idea sinks like a concrete lifejacket you can still win the fun prizes.
  6. Sleep right
    Take one or two power naps in the event just to recharge your battery and maintain focus. A lot of attendees make silly mistakes through fatigue. Most importantly stay away from the designated sleeping areas. Sleep under your desk like a good soldier. When it’s time to wake up these bean bags and cushions turn into full body handcuffs of velvet cloud. One can oversleep and find themselves imprisoned in those immaculate Egyptian cotton duvets of entrapment.
  7. Presentation is key
    In the same way that the proof is in the pudding, the final presentation is the finishing touch that pulls everything together for the judges. It is here where ideas and dreams are won or lost. Put effort into the pretty. Razzle dazzle the judges into seeing that your “Tinder For Cats” is the best working concept in the room.