How to survive (and even thrive in) a Hackathon

The idea is that you’re going to become more versed in that tool over the course of the hackathon, and being completely unacquainted with it is no issue.

If it’s a more general hackathon, or heaven forbid a legitimately competitive one, you’re going to want to at least have the basic grounding in whatever tool you’re working on.

You can expect some help if you need it by your peers, of course.

But if you’re learning a brand new framework with absolutely no prior exposure, you might not actually get a ton done in the allotted time.

It also might end up being a more stressful experience, particularly when one person on your team is vocally gunning for the Amazon gift card grand prize.

Anyone trying to flex a seldom-used muscleThis is, in my opinion, the real sweet spot for hackathons.

I’m saying seldom-used here as the distinction, meaning you know the absolute basics of what you’d like to be coding.

If there’s something you don’t really touch in your day-to-day that you really want to just spend a day exploring, hackathons are perfect for this sort of thing.

Whether you’re a novice coder just wanting to make some static pages or an experienced dev looking to dive into something you never do at work, this is the perfect place to spend a day spiking something new for you*.

*If you’re very experienced in something other than what you want to be working on, there’s a good a chance people are going to ask you to join their team and do that for them.

Be firm.

You came to the Campbell’s Chunky Soup Hackathon to write something in Elixir and you will not be swayed otherwise.

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on UnsplashA team that knows what they want to work onWell you’re set!.Ask around if you’re looking to fill a couple holes in your group, but if you’ve got a group of friends/like-minded enemies who know what they want to work on, enjoy the snacks and cold brew and spike what you’re spiking.

Don’t expect this to be a great networking tool, but if you’re just looking to code all day with some friends, this is a great way to do it.

The solo guru who will build something stunningly goodEnjoy the Amazon gift card you’ll inevitably win, you genius.

The UX designerYou’re worth your weight in gold and every team of engineers will be falling over themselves to get you to work on their project.

You can be as picky as you desire because odds are, there are very few UX designers there (particularly on a percentage basis) and the last thing any engineer there wants to do is figure out design.

Anyone who wants to work with what they’re good atIf you’re going in as a free agent, then you’ll be in high demand because hackathons do tend to be overwhelmingly junior in experience (not always, but the majority) so as someone who can jump in and contribute right away you will be in high demand.

If you don’t mind spending a lot of your day as a teacher/mentor type, a group of more junior devs/CS students would kill for you to help them out.

If you’d rather really crank on a project in your expertise, try to feel out another more experienced team or just fly solo.

The business folksI’m going to be honest: I’m still a bit at a loss on why there tend to be so many business types who go to hackathons.

Mostly seems to be for building the slideshow at the end.

Unless you’ve got a really strong reason to be there (trust me, the bagels and pizza aren’t worth it on their own) I just feel like your Saturdays could be better spent.

Photo by rawpixel on UnsplashWhat’s a good project idea?There are a bunch of ways to have a good project idea, but nothing is more important than the fact that you have one day to build this.

Whatever your idea is, make it 1/4 the scale.


If you want to use this as a day to jump-start a larger project you will work on later, then sure go for it.

But if your plan is to have a fully functional application by the end of the day, you’re going to want to cut your idea down.

Let’s break down the idea typesYou already have something sorta builtWell you’ve got a head-start, you little cheat.

Goes against the spirit if the idea of the hackathon is “built this entirely in a day”, but there are no rules in love and code.

You have a rock solid idea of what you want to buildCool, go for it!.Be mindful of the stated rule of Make It Smaller but if you really know what you want to build, you don’t need me to tell you otherwise.

You have an idea but you have concernsWhat are your concerns?Might be too big a scale?.It definitely is.

Try to trim it down if you want to have a fully fledged-app by the end of the hackathon.

It’s a little too similar to this existing app.

Are you planning on profiting on this app or you just spinning up something for fun?.Odds are heavily stacked towards it being the latter, so see if you can build that app!I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel GROUND-BREAKING.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was a killer app.

Seriously do not stress about how original your app is.

You could build a complete clone of any app and say “I built a clone of this app” and everyone will nod and go “oh that’s cool, they build that in a day?”It just feels too small This idea is perfect.

You have absolutely no ideaWell, find a team that does!.And if you don’t have an idea or a team who will take you, you can always do the trusty fallback of “To-Do List & Planner in a language I didn’t know before today.

”Photo by rawpixel on UnsplashCommon Pitfalls & PanicsWe have 20 minutes and our app does.



It happens.

Don’t beat yourself up, don’t frantically code during everyone else’s presentations and try to go last, just get the best version you can get up.

If you can’t do that, find a way to present what you did, show what isn’t working and what is, and what you’d do with more time.

There’s no reason to be embarrassed here, we’ve all been here.

My team of strangers do not get along and things are tenseManaging conflicting personalities can be tough, and programmers don’t always have the best reputation for social adeptness.

Try to bring a positive energy to the team and if that doesn’t work, remember you’ll never have to see these people again after 6pm.

My team of friends/colleagues are not getting along and things are tenseIt’s a hackathon.

You have to see these people again.

Let’s smooth everything over so you don’t end up sitting alone at lunch next week at work because you absolutely refused to use Redux with your React project.

I’m afraid I’m the weakest link on my teamCongratulations, you’re in the majority.

Imposter syndrome is rampant at a hackathon, you’re not alone.

Most people are worried they’re the weakest link on their team.

And if you ARE the weakest link on your team, don’t sweat it.

The whole idea of these things is to get better at coding, and the only way you get better is by being bad first.

What I’m working on just.



If you knew how to do this perfectly, it wouldn’t be a very useful hackathon now would it?.There’s no shame in asking for help if you’re truly stuck, but don’t stress about the fact that you need to getting your work done as fast as humanly possible.

It’s nice to be fast, but it’s better to understand what you’re doing.

This office doesn’t have cold brew on tapGet the hell out of that place as fast as you can.

Photo by Donovan Arias on UnsplashOkay I’m ready, where can I start??Here’s a list of great hackathons nationwide.

Otherwise just try to get entrenched in your local hacking community and see if you can find out about any coming up.

If there are none near you, all you need is a space and some hackers to start one up.


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