Why Hackathons?

May 23, 2012

You should go to a hackathon. You’ll find out quickly if it’s something you enjoy. But if you do, I’d like to help make your experience awesome.

A typical hackathon looks like this: Form a team, come up with an idea, work all night, and finally, present your project. Most last 24 hours. Your goal is to build the best thing you possibly can, starting at the same level as everyone else.

My first hackathon was a year ago. I had no idea what I was doing, but I showed up, met some people, and built something fun. I had a similar experience this past weekend. In between, there were a lot of hackathons, but none as exciting.

What makes these two experience stand out from all the others?

First, the team. The ideal team has a person covering every role. I think four people is best. This past weekend those four people were two developers and two designers. At my first hackathon it was two developers, one person figuring out gameplay, and one person doing sound. The trick is to find a way to work in parallel. You will fail if you don’t.

Second, the idea. Somehow you should find an idea that you’re all excited about. With these two hackathons, we spent a couple hours talking over the possibilities before we found one that we couldn’t stop talking about. Then we spent more time planning out all the features that we needed to build, that would be nice to have, and that we definitely shouldn’t build.

Fake everything except what you need. Every unsuccesful hack I’ve made failed because we tried to do too much. No, don’t implement that registration system. No, don’t implement a RESTful API. No, don’t build your app with tools you’ve never used before. Your audience won’t care about those things, so don’t spend time on them.

I always focus on what a teammate once described as “the happy path.” What path would someone take to solve their problem? Build that, and the demo is easy. Last weekend we used the example of Ken, a potential user we talked to while coming up with the idea. Every part of the app makes Ken’s life easier, so we just had to explain how.

Everyone has a different reason they go to hackathons. Some go for competition, or to build something cool. I go for the people. It’s an opportunity to spend time really getting to know someone, to figure out what motivates them. It’s a community of people that inspires me to be better. I’m still friends with the team from that first hackathon, who have since started a company and moved in together. A hackathon is an opportunity, and it’s up to you to make the most of it.

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