Tips For A Successful Hack-a-Thon

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There are lots of reasons to participate in hack-a-thons: learning a new technology and improving your skills, validating an idea with the audience and judges, or winning a prize. Sometimes it’s just a great excuse to work on an idea that you’ve in your head for awhile.

Depending on your reason for participating, certain hack-a-thons may or may not be for you. For example, if you’re looking to present in front of an audience and judges, Node Knockout wouldn’t be a good one to enter (it’s all online). But, if you’re looking to learn a new technology (node.js) or win a prize, then it’s perfect!

Jason and I have participated in many hack-a-thons over the past few years, beginning with the quarterly hack-a-thons that happened while we were still working at Zappos, and then later, branching out into local and national hack-a-thon competitions. Along the way, we’ve learned a few tips and tricks for enjoying yourself, making the most of your time and even winning prizes.

Before The Event

Arrange for child or pet care. Most hack-a-thons run all night, so if you have kids, you may need to arrange for someone to watch them while you’re competing. Jason and I always arrange for someone to stop by and feed the dogs/let them outside while we’re hacking away late into the night.

Get enough sleep. Make sure you’re well-rested before the hack-a-thon begins since you will undoubtedly be up late the next night or two.

Hack-a-Thon Preparation

While you should never cheat and begin working on your hack-a-thon project before the hack-a-thon officially begins, it doesn’t hurt to begin thinking about your idea. Since many hack-a-thons are only 48-hours or less, it helps to have a few things planned out so you don’t waste any time.

Team up. Don’t have an idea or a team for the hack-a-thon? Look to Twitter, Facebook and the community to find team members who are looking for the skills you have or who still need a team. Most hack-a-thons have a hashtag which you can search for and use to find team members. Having a team already in place will allow you to discuss ideas, responsibilities, which languages or platforms to use, timelines and the presentation. Make sure you like your team members – if you don’t, the next few days are going to be hell.

Decide on a name. Jason and I have wasted hours during hack-a-thons just deciding on the name for our app. Having this figured out ahead of time makes buying domains or creating project workspaces a breeze.

Wireframe. For designers, drawing out the concept of your idea with the features and flow is perfectly acceptable to do a day or two in advance, as long as you don’t actually create any Photoshop assets. Have your wireframes ready to go the minute the contest officials say it’s okay to begin and you won’t lose any time arguing over features or spend an hour deciding where the best place to put the signup button is.

Get your server setup. If you’re using a technology for the first time, you will undoubtedly waste hours configuring and debugging your server when you could be using that time developing or designing. Learn about it beforehand and if possible, get everything ready for deployment before the hack-a-thon even begins.

Winning Prizes

Many hack-a-thons offer multiple prizes (Best Overall, Best Design, Best Mashup, etc). In addition, hack-a-thon sponsors will often offer their own prize packs (Best Use Of Our API, Best App, etc). If you’re looking to walk away from a hack-a-thon with a prize, then here are some tips that we’ve discovered along the way.

Be eligible for multiple prizes. If your project idea allows for it, try to be eligible for multiple prizes. For example, at the last hack-a-thon Jason and I attended, we used the Plexi API to be eligible for the Plexi prize, but we also used the Twitter API so we could be eligible for the Best Mashup prize. This increases your odds of winning at least one prize.

Go for the smaller prizes. When Jason and I participated in the AT&T Developer Hack-a-Thon last January, nearly all the teams (and there were over 60 of them) were trying to compete for the Ford Focus car that Ford was giving away for “Best Use of the Ford API”. Since our chance of winning the car was slim, we decided to work on an app that instead used Microsoft Surface technology (another sponsor with prizes). In the end, there were only 10 teams that were eligible for the Microsoft prize and there were 8 available prize packs, one of which we won – we walked away with a Microsoft Surface Tablet and a Windows 8 phone.

Find a (good) designer. Everyone understands that you’re participating in a hack-a-thon and that your project is not going to look or function perfectly. Even so, no matter how great your idea is, if it looks like a 1998 Geocities website, the judges are not going to take it seriously. We’ve seen a lot of great ideas get overlooked come judging time because the app did not look clean and professional. If finding a great designer is not possible, use a pre-designed template or use Twitter Bootstrap.

Things To Bring

  • Laptop and charger
  • Demo Devices (only if you need them for presenting – iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Android phone, Surface tablet, etc)
  • VGA or DVI adapter (you never know if the organizer will have the adapter you need in order to present)
  • Headphones (tuning out the noise around you is a must!)
  • Camera (don’t forget to snap a few photos of all your hard work)
  • Snacks and drinks (most hack-a-thons offer free snacks and coffee/tea, but it never hurts to be prepared, especially if you’re a healthy eater)
  • Ibuprofen (sometimes having one too many coffees will give you a headache)
  • A book or something to do while judging is taking place
  • Pens & paper

Please tell us about your own hack-a-thon experiences and what makes them more enjoyable for you! 🙂

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