Preparing for a Hackathon

I once posted an answer to one of my friend’s question: Guys, how to win hackathon and I thought I should expand more about this.

I’ve attended and won (or at least went into the finals) a number of hackathons. The latest one I’ve attended was AngelHack KL and although we didn’t win the first prize, we were told that we were so close to winning the hack. We’ve also received a lot of feedback from the judges, sponsors, and acquaintances to bring the product to market and make it a reality.

We did of course – when you have government officials and technology leaders all asking you to bring a product to market, that’s a good sign – and I think it’s going to be an interesting next few months :)

In my experience, there are two ingredients to the secret sauce:

  1. There must be a valid problem to solve. A very specific, but otherwise a valid problem. The one we were trying to solve in ‪#‎ahkl2015‬ was: I work with this girl, and her birthday is coming up, and I got invited to her birthday. What should I give her? (true story btw)

  2. There’s a magic twist. Hackathons are all about innovation. Back in 2011, cab hailing apps were none to be found and if you made one, you’d probably win. Not now because the space is very much crowded, and the “twist” isn’t so magical anymore (using your phone’s GPS to show the other cabs around, and show your cab where you want to be picked up).

The first ingredient is quite “easy” to figure out. You’ll definitely have an abundance of small personal issues you’d love to be solved. You just need to have a brainstorm with some of your friends and focus your idea into something that’s polished and interesting.

The second ingredient is a bit more complicated since you really need that special idea to transform a boring solution into a magical one. I suggest looking at the theme and the sponsors and see how their offerings will helpgive that additional kick to your solution.

For our team, we initially started with just sending the recipient of the gift a survey, but we made the twist magical by making a damn-smart-machine-learning-algorithm to figure out the recipient’s personality and suggest a gift for them.

Hackathons are not just all about technical chops. I’ve seen teams that have devs waaaay better than our team. There are devs 100x even better, but they probably are sleeping on the weekend and not participating. Having enough tech skills to pull off making a product is a given; that’s why you have to compete on the creativity of the solution.

There are also a lot of management skills required in a hackathon. You’ll initially have a grand idea of what to build, but eventually you’ll realize that you don’t have time to implement them all. You will need to re-scope, and re-prioritize all the time (yes, even in the last hour). You will have to cut off a functionality you thought was critical, but since you can’t implement it on time you will have to work around it. You will never ship a perfect product, but one that you can live with and you can pitch with.

Next up: Choosing your deployment platform

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