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Part 3: The first hour, MVCH and the social hackathon - The Definitive Guide to Making the Most of Tech Hackathons

This is the third post of the series called The Definitive Guide for Hackathon – in these chapters you can learn how to get the most out of your next hackathon.

In this chapter, I'll guide you to organize your team, so you can deliver your MVCH on time. I'll also share tips to network and connect with other hackers.

All the articles in this series:

The First Hour of the Hackathon, MVCH (Minimum Viable Crap Hack), Milestones and Deliverables

In my first hackathon at HackUPC (700 hackers over 36 hours), we ended up working to the last minute on a Sunday morning, without sleeping and without finishing the hack. We ran out of time, because we had a really bad planning and we were not experienced in the technologies we were working on.

Instead of starting your coding and design right away (which we all want to do!), allocate the first hour to sitting with your team to come up with an informal roadmap that should cover:

💩 MVCH (minimum viable crap hack)

An MVCH covers the fundamental functionality of your hack that will create that wow factor in the jury (we talked about a wow-factor idea in the first post of this series).

Prioritization is key to be able to ship the most important features first. Ask the following questions:

  • What are the fundamental features we should build first?
  • What are nice-to-have features if we have time?
  • When should we ship each of the features?
  • Who is going to implement each of the features (in pairs or alone)?

👊 Ownership + divide and conquer

As a mentor I have seen many team members not doing anything. This tends to be a clear indicator that you have not fairly distributed the tasks – or you do not have enough patience to mentor first-time hackers 😩

To determine who should work on each task, talk before the hackathon about your areas of expertise and what each of you want to learn during the weekend. If there is someone less skilled or who is a first-timer, make sure you pair together in the tasks (both of you will learn a lot! 🙌)

🔑 Leadership

It’s important to have a team leader. This hacker should help to overcome any blocker, seek for mentors’ help, and make sure you are all delivering on time. It’s similar to having a Scrum Master, though without a formal process. Choose the person with stronger knowledge on the hack context, or someone with excellent communication and management skills.

📆 Breakdown tasks + time management

Breakdown the 💩MVCH into incremental deliverables, and try to minimize code dependencies. Someone can start working on the project skeleton while others work on features. I think is not needed to use an issue tracker (like Jira, Trello or GitHub projects), but it may help your team to have a clear picture of in-flight tasks and pending.

Prioritization is key in a hackathon: focus first on your MVCH (minimum viable crap hack) and ship features as soon as possible.

While Hacking – How to Ask for Help, Handle the Frustration, and Sleep


I’ve been mentored in two hackathons so far: PennApps and HackUPC. Apart from helping out with technical questions (JavaScript, React, APIs, MVCH, pitching ideas), I’ve coached more than 20 hackers about their career: getting an internship, learning new technologies, building their resume, and so on. Mentors and sponsor companies are by far one of the best resources you can use during a hackathon, so network with them!

Moreover, here are some tips that will help you move faster – and better – during the 36 chaotic hours.

😡 How to handle frustration

You will experience stress and frustration during the weekend, either because you are stuck or because you are behind the clock. Instead of blaming people around you or hitting your head on the keyboard, try some of the following ideas: ask for help from mentors, cut out the functionalities you don’t need to implement, rest and have some fresh air. At the end of the day, the process is more important than the result (winning or losing).

🤔 How to ask for help

I always apply the following technique:

  1. Give context: What do you want to achieve/implement/fix?
  2. Explain the blocker: What errors or stack traces are you having?
  3. Share all the solutions you have tried.
  4. Ask an open question: How would you fix this? What other solutions can I try?

😴 Should you sleep?

Of course! In my first few hackathons I used to not care about sleeping. My mindset was “Let’s code 36 hours in a row! Let’s drink coffee all night long, so we can transform caffeine into beautiful code!” To be honest, this didn’t help me to enjoy the experience.

Getting at least two or three hours of sleep helped me to wake up the next morning with fresh ideas, and not be irascible… Check “The Effects of Sleep Loss on Mood”

The Social Hackathon – Attend Workshops and Events, and More

Hackathons can help you get a job, meet your next business partner, or simply have fun! As I explained in the first part of this series, I was so focused on winning in my first few hackathons that I missed the social hackathon. What do I mean by social hackathon? All the events, active networking, workshops and activities during the hackathon.

Siddhant Shenoy, one of the winners at PennApps, suggests you have an open and positive mindset: “A hackathon is a great place to meet new friends who share your interests. So attend all the networking events at the hackathon, make sure you pitch your skills if not your idea. There are many first-time attendees, so don’t feel alone. In the end, it is an event for geeky introverts as well, so go out there and meet new people!”

There are many first-time attendees, so don’t feel alone. In the end, it is an event for geeky introverts as well, so go out there and meet new people!
~ Siddhant Shenoy

Jake Hart, business analyst at McKinsey and judge at PennApps, told me that he has recruited great talent for his company from hackathons: “I recruited people at PennApps totally by accident. I visited many teams during the weekend and asked them what they were working on. Some of them asked about my background, and we ended up having longer conversations about careers and job finding.”

While coding and shipping a product should be your first priority, here is my assignment for you the next time you attend a hackathon 😄

  • Attend at least two events: workshops, talks, team-building activities.
  • Stop hacking and go to some fun activities: Nerf gun battle, karaoke, eating s’mores.
  • Meet at least five hackers and five mentors!

Summary

We saw the importance of prioritizing and keep your team accountable. I also gave you some tips to be effective when asking for help, as well as handle any frustration during the weekend. In the last tip, I shared some insights from hackathon winners to get the most of the networking and the social hackathon.

In the next chapter, you will learn how to pitch your idea, learn how the Judging works and FollowUp after the hackathon

In the meantime, if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask!

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