How to be more successful at a hackathon – 8 mistakes to avoid

Sigma Software arranges the “Hack For Peace” in five European cities in October. Here are their best tips to bring. Photo credit: Sigma Software.

Hackathon is a great opportunity to get out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself, try and learn something new, share experiences and meet interesting people. And last but not least, to get an adrenaline rush since every Hackathon is a competition anyway. Undoubtedly, every team that comes to a Hackathon wants to win. However, some of them make harmful mistakes that may prevent them from getting well-deserved laurels.

Now let’s take a closer look at the most common mistakes.

1. Neglecting Your Homework

The preparation stage is of huge importance! Don’t be lazy, invest your time so you do not spend precious minutes at the event on what you could have done in advance.

First, set up communication with organizers: ask questions and find out all the nuances. Find out if they will provide you with servers or repositories, what tools and approaches are allowed and which ones are unacceptable. Will there be access to mentors, support teams, representatives of business, or end users, whose problems you are going to solve during the competition? Any information might be useful. Do not neglect to talk with the organizers during the event as well; their answers may guide you in the right direction.

Second, think about what tasks will be assigned to you. There are Hackathons where the participants are narrowed by a general direction only. The other format – is when teams are solving real tasks and problems. Get ready for both! Give special attention to the domain you’re going to work in and try to clearly understand it. This way you can have several ideas in mind about what concept to build.

Read about the organizers and their business verticals. Imagine what hot spots they may want to solve, and write down a list of ideas of how these problem areas could be resolved.

2. Using Random People

Without the right people, you’re going to be driven back and may not be able to get a working prototype. A strong team is a team where all members are cross-functional, ready to cope with new and unusual tasks, and quick learners that have no fear of trying new approaches on the go. In good teams, people complement each other. It’s quite a rare case when you need two specialists with the same competencies. Think over all the stages of product creation and what expertise is needed to cover them and select your team based on those needs.

People who are close-minded and not ready to compromise or are too sensitive to criticism are usually not efficient team players. Therefore, take a close look at soft skills when choosing your teammates. Without motivated people that want to make a difference and are ready to go the extra mile, winning is impossible.

3. Unreasonable Expectations

When you already have a clear picture of your future product, it’s quite difficult to refrain from topping it up with a bunch of extra features. It’s dangerous to try to handle everything at once because you could come to the final with a completely unfinished product. Think big, but start small. Determine the main business model and focus on it from the very beginning. Do your best to split up your project into smaller features. If you don’t have enough time to finish, you’ll at least have something. If you have some free time, you will be able to implement the rest of your ideas, just try to sensibly evaluate and prioritize them.

In lean startup terminology, this is called an MVP.

4. Avoid a Slow Start

It’s quite a common story. When starting on a task, many teams, especially newbies, waste a lot of time taking their first step. They draw concepts, go through every little detail, make long lists of possible features, set up workspaces, run brainstorms, and assign roles in a team – they do everything except actually work. The longer your ramp-up period takes the lower the chances of getting to the finish line with good results.

Do some of these preparations beforehand. Define the roles in the team in advance so that everyone knows which part of the work they are responsible for so they can get started on them at once. Make sure there are no situations when two or more people are working on the same task. You don’t want people stepping on each other’s toes while other tasks are being ignored.

5. Working With No Breaks

Remember to take regular breaks and have a drink, stretch your body, and blow the cobwebs away. Sometimes walking away from your task and getting a short change of pace can help you solve your problems and break through tricky issues.

6. Forgetting The Balance

It may happen that in the middle of a Hackathon you realize you won’t be able to show something to the jury. Many things can happen based on a lack of expertise, some unforeseen circumstances, or way over-complicated solutions. In any case, always remember to strike a balance between a working application and a UI.

Hey, this is just a Hackathon, Ok? No one expects you to have the most polished interface. You’d be surprised how easy it is to fall into the trap of spending hours on a logo design or wasting precious time because your columns are misaligned. Go easy on that. After all, your main task is to demo your product.

7. Getting Frustrated By Open Space

For most people, working in a crowded and noisy open space is a true challenge. You have to be in full view during the whole event. It means that everyone will see your successes and failures. On the other hand, you are going to know about all the issues and achievements of your neighbors too. The mood of people around you influences your own spirit more than you think. It may take a lot of time to acclimate your team, and during this, your efficiency will be far from perfect. Try to focus on your tasks and spend as little time eyeing other participants as possible.

8. Leave Pitching To Chance

This is the most important thing if you want to actually do well at the Hackathon. Plan your pitch right. You should spend enough time on the product demo because this is the most important part and the actual reason you are there. If you have the opportunity to choose the order of your speech, always ask to be the first or the last – these teams are remembered the most.

A huge mistake that almost everyone makes is that they don’t spend enough time preparing for the pitch. About half an hour before hacking ends, stop everything you’re working on, even if you’re “almost done” implementing a feature. Take out everything that doesn’t work and talk about how you’re going to present it. If you have some really awesome things going on behind the scenes, figure out a way to display them. A wow-effect will help the jury single you out from the dozens of other participating teams.

Author: Tetyana Osetrova, former Account and Project Manager at Sigma Software Group

Join the ‘Hack for Peace’ cross-European hackathon to find and build tech solutions relating to war issues! The event will take place on October 21-23 in five countries — Ukraine, the UK, Sweden, Poland, and Portugal. Don’t miss your chance to change the world for the better! Apply here (for participants) and here (for mentors).


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