Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Advice for your first hackathon

I remember my first hackathon – It was in high school, and the second I walked in the door I regretted ever signing up. 
Looking around at people confidently networking and speaking about technologies I’d never even heard of, I felt incredibly below par. After the opening ceremony, scared of going to the team mixer, I started hacking alone. I got stuck soon and rather than ask for help, I stayed awake the whole night fixing one issue, and when the time came to demo, I didn’t even submit my project. That hackathon taught me a lot, and I’m hoping to pass on that knowledge to a few other people.

Going to hackathon has now become one of my favorite things to do. It’s definitely challenging, since it’s the first place you go from being a student to actually working on a project you pick and are passionate about. I really enjoy making new connections, attending workshops, learning new technologies, and working with a team on a cool product. Hackathons have the potential to be every techie’s favorite thing to do. However, the first hackathon you attend can be disheartening, exhausting, and disappointing.

One of the greatest mistakes I made at my first hackathon was not teaming up and not asking for help. Working alone is not nearly as constructive as working in a team can be. Dare I say that the point of a hackathon is learning how to effectively divide and conquer tasks (and learning how to identify different parts of a solution is a huge learning curve in any engineer’s curricula). It seems daunting, and you might feel like you’re “not smart enough” to be on someone’s team, but going to the team mixer and finding people like you, who are either at the same level or are willing to guide you a little, and who are interested in the same field as you, can make or break your experience at a hackathon. Another thing is knowing how to ask for help. People can be scared to call over mentors and ask for help, but that’s what the event coordinators got the mentors for. Learning how to frame your question in a way to make it easy for people to help is also another key concept you can learn from attending hackathons.

Another mistake I made, though it might seem much less serious, was staying awake all night. I got increasingly frustrated with the issue and with myself, chugging the provided espresso shots and Soylent to try to stay awake. Come morning time, I felt hopeless and ill. You need to take frequent breaks and work on things other than your issue during hackathons so that you can actually be more productive. It actually helps to get up and take a walk, listen in on different workshops, and do some of the fun activities planned by event leaders. Coordinate with your teammates when would be the best time for you to take a break and to sleep so that your product still gets finished on time.

The final mistake I made at my first hackathon was to not demo my project. When the submission deadline came, I couldn’t figure out GitHub since it was my first time using it, and rather than asking for help, I thought, “My project isn’t going to win anyway,” and I didn’t submit anything. That was a grave mistake. First, if you don’t know how to use GitHub, that is totally fine! It is many peoples’ first time using source control. Call over a mentor and find out how you can submit your project. Second, it doesn’t matter if you aren’t 100% happy with your project or if you think you definitely won’t win. You worked on something for 24 hours! That is so impressive and you need to submit that work, even if it doesn’t work how you wanted it to. Learning how to demo and gaining that experience is also incredibly valuable. After demoing a few times at many hackathons, I have become more confident and better at answering questions about my code. Lastly, the point of hackathons isn’t to win. Most people don’t win hackathons. I think the lasting knowledge and network you get from attending these events is the most important thing.

I hope this gives you some confidence heading into your first hackathon. Feel free to reach out through email or the comments for any further advice OR if you want to meet up at a future hackathon in the SF Bay Area!

Code on!

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