Show Up: A Newbie’s Guide to Hackathons
Three years ago, I saw an ad for a hackathon here in Halifax. It sounded interesting, but none of my friends wanted to go with me – even with the promise of free food (pizza!) and the opportunity to win amazing prizes (hello CA$H!).
I was hesitant to go by myself, figuring everyone would turn up in groups. I was worried I’d be alone.
Eventually, I talked myself into checking it out. I promised myself I could leave if it wasn’t interesting or fun, and at least there’d be free food, which is sadly a selling feature for me (obviously, I’ve now mentioned it twice!).
So I showed up. The introductory morning session was a full workshop discussing how the retail organization’s data would be shared and how we should use SQL to manipulate the datasets effectively. The workshop was fascinating, though I understood next to nothing…maybe I should point out that I am a business person, not a tech expert. I sat there staring at this Professor of Data Analytics wondering ‘how long ‘til lunch?’ Eventually, the workshop ended, and I was even more skeptical about participating.
This brings me to my first, and the most important piece of advice: show up. You’ll never know if hackathons are for you if you don’t at least try one. It can be a scary experience to attend an event where you know no one, especially if it’s held at a place you’ve never been before. But, sometimes the best experiences come from pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.
Before I knew it, it was time to create teams. The organizer asked, “Does anyone not have a team already?”
I hesitantly raised my hand…I should probably have also mentioned that I’m a total nerd and sat in the front row. Too nervous to look around to see if I was the only loner, the organizer said, “great, you can all be a team!” Without warning, I was introducing myself to two students: one studying for his Master’s in Computer Science, and the other studying for her PhD in Artificial Intelligence. Yeah, I struck tech teammate gold! Suddenly I was so excited to be giving a hackathon a try.
Which leads me to my next piece of advice: diversify your hackathon team. I didn’t realize at the time, but my team’s diverse skill set was a major advantage.
We ended up winning all three of the hackathon’s categories…and lots of cash! The key to our success was a well-rounded team with complementary skills. My teammates could manipulate the datasets, but they had no practical business knowledge to solve the problems within them. That’s where I was an asset – and for pitching, you need someone who can sell to big groups and answer questions from judges on the fly.
This ties into my last tip for those new to hackathons: know your what you’re good at and communicate it to your team. If you’re like me and attend your first hackathon alone, you’ll want to be able to easily communicate the skills you have and the tasks you think you’d excel at. This makes it easier to divide the work early on and you’ll be able to make the most of your team’s talents.
Today, I’m a Product and Growth Lead at Atlantic Lottery’s Innovation Outpost – it’s basically like being part of a hackathon all the time! And now I’m having my next “hackathon-first,” running one for Atlantic Lottery.
Our hackathon will be ‘Space Lottery’ themed. You can create lottery products or services that are in new spaces, or ways lottery could function in space. Everyone 19 or older is welcome, and the more diverse your background the better! Ideally, we’ll get participants who are artists, graphic designers, product or service designers, engineers, programmers, and, of course, business people. But to do so, we need you to give it a try…if for nothing else than the free food.
Interested in participating in our hackathon on July 12 and 19? Sign up here.