Hackathons – learning and winning through play

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Cool new job, prizes, new people, learning. All of these things you can gain by participating in hackathons. What does a hackathon look like? Why is it so effective and educational (not only) for programmers? Finally, how can you prepare yourself for it? Read my article and find out why hackathons are really learning and winning through play.

Recently I have sent to my co-workers a survey about participating in hackathons. In my opinion it’s one of the best things that any developer can do. I don’t mean only students or interns, but also more experienced IT specialists. Check my story and the 5 key benefits of hackathons.

How my hackathon went

I had a really positive experience. The goal was to create an app that was going to help the local community in their lives. I went alone, so I could either work alone or join others.  I chose the latter so I was able to join some guys I don’t know. There was me (frontend), two python/Django guys from Warsaw, a UX/frontend from Slovenia and another sort of devops/backend guy from Ukraine. Our concept was very loosely related to the topic although I would say it was very good Idea. We were working on an app for renting out office spaces.

Hackathon benefit No 1:

Such events are not only for programmers. In your team you also need members that will be responsible for connecting ideas, marketing, project management and so on. There’s plenty of roles, so just like in start-ups you might need a Hacker working on prototype, coding; Hipster for design and Hound for UX and ideas; Hustler (or Copywriter) for business side of the project, final rocket pitch and your MVP presentation. You are also learning how business works.

We had around 40 hours. Almost instantly we sat down together for brainstorming. In about an hour we drew out all the screens we would need, backend endpoints we needed and what sort of data we would work with. It was obviously a very rough plan but still very useful. There were about  ten screens with forms, lists and maps. The app was ambitious, there were plenty of things that could go wrong (and plenty did go wrong) but we thought we might make it happen.

After all the planning it was time to start coding. And for the next thirty few hours (with short breaks for food, bathroom and little sleep) we were churning loads of code. By the end of the weekend we managed to get like 8 out of 10 screens and plenty of functionality. 

Hackathon benefit No 2:

You can expand your scheduling skills. Usually you have only one weekend to develop some sort of MVP. The key for winning is right timeline planning. I suggest keeping the work in short time slots, divide work for every team member, and connect your milestones every couple of steps. Socializing your work is very important for application consistency.

Our final application was obviously buggy and rough around corners. Although for the time that was spent the outcome was still very satisfying. 

Finally, at the end of the weekend it was time to present our app. We chose a happy path that wouldn’t blow up while demonstrating and made a PowerPoint presenting the team. It was enough for third place. For the team that never worked together before it was a pretty good outcome.

Hackathon benefit No 3:

Winning is not important. If you participate and follow the hackathon rules, you learn new stuff very quickly and get a chance to present what you have the best. You can prove yourself.

It didn’t end there for us. It turned out that one of the hackathon mentors was working for a big international construction and office management company. He said that they might be interested in an app like ours, and we arranged for another presentation at their office with some big shots. 

Hackathon benefit No 4:

Network opportunities at hackathons are surprising. You have access to the best mentors in the development world of course. But it goes far beyond that. Sometimes you may gain something more, than a single trophy or award – a partner or employer for years. Decision makers from global companies looking for talents there!

The smart thing would be then to work every spare minute on that app and the presentation. Write down a development plan and calculate a rough budget. Questions like this were to be expected during such a presentation. After all, we had our big chance for a unicorn startup. We were busy working, studying and going for skiing trips, so we didn’t prepare well enough and the presentation didn’t go that well. As a result, we missed our chance but still, the experience was worth it. 

Hackathon benefit No 5:

Let’s keep the main thought simple: You are working, learning and still having great fun!

We have come up with an interesting app idea and if we played our cards right that might still be even more. Looking back at my career I can’t point to a single event that would allow me to progress more than this hackathon and talking to my colleagues I hear similar stories. 

Stepwise Team Hackathon Testimonials

“You can creatively exert yourself, practice the information synthesis and work in a group of different people with very different skills.”
Katarzyna von Alexandrowitsch, Office Manager

“In a relatively short time, the team has to build a prototype of an application or product, which, even if it turns out to be a failure, will show the direction. Thanks to this, we discover new possibilities. It’s definitely worth it.”
– Krzysztof Szukieć, CEO

“It is worth remembering about blankets and pillows, plan breaks for stretching and moving away from the desktop. Remember about liquids, good and nutritious food and electrolytes.”
– Katarzyna von Alexandrowitsch, Office Manager

“I think that hackathons can be individual and team-based. Depending on this, different experiences can be drawn (e.g. in team work: working in a team under time pressure, getting along with others, delegating tasks, etc.), (in individual: good time planning, you “are responsible” for everything you do, no feedback from others, you can go too far with ideas and not to make the work on time, etc.)”
– Olga Mielkina, UX/UI Designer 

“Hackathon is a great idea when we do not want to think about a specific problem ourselves – it allows us to obtain more interesting and useful solutions from people with different experiences and points of view”
– Zuzanna Chmura, UX/UI Designer