Hackathons have spread from the very nerdy beginnings, actually, in a community, I’m very proud to be a small part of, to a quite wide audience and range of disciplines. I think that what ties all the different hackathons together nowadays is the orientation towards technical, or at least productive, domains, where people come together to work on projects in a similar field, with the goal of producing something useful – be it a prototype or a mostly-finished feature.
Now there are many hackathons: for design, marketing, bioinformatics, robotics, even financial technology, and it’s really about carving out a few days in a calendar for focused work on something interesting.
Lately, popular forms of hackathons are sponsored and head-hunting ones, where specific companies create the events to either brainstorm about new ideas and new directions, or to scout for people who have demonstrated abilities and ideas which can be applied in the company.
Individualism or Teamwork?
When we hear about famous scientists, engineers and businessmen from history, there is often the image of a solitary person working in his laboratory and producing something new. Even in the small cases when this was true, it was very limited and really only possible because of historical circumstances. Most likely, no single person has all the skills needed to successfully create something and make it big. If someone is extremely good in one area, for example, technical skills, he or she might not be as good in other areas, such as attracting investments, producing workable prototypes, marketing or selling – and all those components are needed.
Teamwork is absolutely necessary.
Here’s a very clear example:
For the type of hackathon such as this one, where there are prizes and a jury which grade the results, someone needs to “sell” the result to the jury. Even if an idea is perfect, it doesn’t mean this perfection was communicated to the people who review it. This is why the designer, presenters, and people with “soft skills” come into play.
Should you prepare yourself for a hackathon?
It depends on what you are trying to do. I’ve seen teams coming to hackathons with complete ideas and just utilising this opportunity to work for a couple of days in peace. I’ve also seen (and that’s kind of how most of my hackathons have happened) people just arriving to brainstorm and create something new on the spot, without preparation.
Both approaches are good and it really depends on specific persons. Of course, having basic skills in the areas where they are trying to work in is beneficial for all participants – it’s a bit too late to start learning at the hackathon itself.
3,2,1… and hackathon can start but you are lost?
The first thing is to establish excellent communication in the team. Really, everyone should participate with the best he knows how to, and the choice of what project to work on must be mutual.
As time is limited, enthusiasm is what brings out the best in people at this stage.
TIPS & TRICKS for competitive-style hackathons
- Team members should be chosen among those enthusiastic to create the agreed-upon idea or project.
- Good communication skills among team members can greatly increase both the quality of the implementation, and more, the originality of the idea.
- The project created on the hackathon does not need to be 100% perfect. It should be a proof of concept, created with as little technical features as possible, but demonstrating usability instead.
- The project should be innovative and differentiate itself from all others on the hackathon, if possible, and even globally.
- Great interest should be taken in “selling” the idea. The person who presents the idea to the audience or the jury should be the one with most communication skills, not necessarily the one who first came up with the idea or the team leader.
- It is more valuable to create something which demonstrates that the idea can work than to attempt to create a perfect project which fails because of lack of time or resources. Stick to the basics, create stuff which works immediately.
Worst vs. Best things about a hackathon
Different teams and people find different things challenging.
For example, staying awake could be an issue if the team goal is to actually work 24/7 (which is often not necessary). Maintaining enthusiasm for the project is extremely important, but also deciding what minimal set should be created on the hackathon and sticking to this decision.
The best parts of hackathons are usually the brainstorming about ideas and challenges, either among team members or between teams, and meeting new people and discussing ideas with them. And winning, of course.
An extremely important thing, especially for ideas which are truly new and unique. Everyone can create and explain something which everyone else has seen already. Everyone knows how a web browser works. But if the idea has any kind of a new approach, does something significantly different
….then the presentation is what in most cases makes or breaks the 1st place.
Another side of the hackathon – the jury
I was in a jury once before, it was interesting to see from a different angle how teams work and often struggle with problems which are easy and inconsequential and fail to actually address critical issues such as usability and fitness for purpose. I think engineers and geek tend to overestimate technical aspects and sometimes even ignore what the real world needs. It was certainly a very educational experience.
Words of conclusion
I really do think that everyone who has an idea should at least once go to a hackathon, to spend a couple of days focused on developing a prototype for it. The best way to fail is not to try.
Who is Ivan Voras?
Ivan Voras is a freelancer and entrepreneur, proud of the width of the projects under his belt, and those span from Bitcoin and blockchain technologies, operating system kernel development to hardware solutions for Internet of Things devices. He worked at the Faculty of electrical engineering and computing of the University of Zagreb for a large part of his life, satisfying his inclination for researching and developing new solutions, and now is continuing that lifestyle in a couple of startups, thinking of solutions for existing and new problems. His favourite areas of technology are those dealing with network protocols and communications, and low-power devices combined with renewable energy sources.
He likes writing and has been an associate editor for Croatian IT magazines Mreža and Bug, regularly produces fresh material for his blog in the Croatian language, and not-so-regularly for a couple of blogs in English. Has the dubious honour of creating or participating in more than a hundred open source project, some of which are truly global. Usually maintains a high tempo of creating 5-6 large-ish projects a year, because he believes in the “try everything, see what stick” philosophy of living.
Still, believes he will find the time to do all the things which often fall through to the bottom of his ToDo lists. Likes to do photography to relax and often gets the itch to take a paintbrush and expand into the actual painting. Enjoys long walks on which he has the time to listen to a large number of podcasts, so ask him for a recommendation!
He has participated in 4 hackathons only in 2016, with different teams, winning the first place in all except one, where they got second place. Now, he will participate as a jury member for the hackathon on Google I/O Extended in Zadar, http://zadar.io.
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