My First Hackathon: Lessons Learned and Tips for Success

Thinking about attending a hackathon? Find out what my first hackathon was like, what I learned from the experience and how to prepare to enter one yourself. By Marcus McDowell.

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Although my background is not in tech, I recently participated in my first hackathon — and it was amazing! When I signed up for the Unicorns In Tech Hackathon 2023, I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to go — and now I can’t wait for the next one! In just 12 hours, I crammed in weeks of learning, collaborated with incredibly talented people and created a solution for the LGBTQ+ community. If you’re considering entering a hackathon yourself, I’ll share my tips on what to expect and how to make the most of the experience.

A woman at a board managing a project as her team watches

What You’ll Learn:

  • What to expect from your first hackathon experience.
  • How to approach your first hackathon and feel prepared.
  • How to leverage your unique skillsets in your team structure to deliver quality results.

What Is a Hackathon?

A hackathon is a multi-day event that brings together experts from various fields to address a specific societal problem or produce a new product prototype.

Companies often use this type of event as a low-risk, high-creativity means of idea generation and testing. In some cases, the participants are limited to the company’s internal employees; in others, such as mine, sponsor companies throw hackathons to support an organization.

Hackathon challenges could address societal issues like climate change or economic disparities, or technological issues like AI or blockchain as their specific focal points. Or, they could challenge employees to create an app to address a common customer complaint, improve employee satisfaction or decrease office expenditures.

In my case, this hackathon had a focus or a topic that we needed to create solutions to address. Unicorns in Tech is part of Uhlala, the largest LGBTQ+ focused organization in Europe. The focus, or challenge, of UIT Hack 2023 was to create solutions that address violence against the LGBTQ+ community.

The hackathon organizers originally shared the event in our UIT Slack. If you aren’t already part of community-oriented tech discussion groups, I urge you to join as a means of expanding your network and learning about relevant events and job postings.

Are you wondering how you can set your resume apart from other developers competing for the same roles? “Hack Your Job Search: An Authoritative Guide to Landing Your First Dev Interview” offers insider tips and advice for using hackathons and other methods to stand out from the crowd!

Read Hack Your Job Search Today!

My Hackathon Experience

After signing up, the sponsor shared the itinerary for the two days of the event. In my case, the hackathon included a four-hour introduction session on Friday followed by a full 12-hour sprint on Saturday.

I arrived on Friday at WeWork, a key sponsor. Once checked in, I was free to roam the campus and chat with other arrivals before the event officially commenced.

To warm the crowd up, we started with mini-games. Rock-paper-scissors is a classic!

Next, the organizers ran through their introduction and got us quickly up to speed with the hackathon’s rules:

  • The central challenge: “Create a solution that prevents violence against LGBTQ+ people and/or provides support to victims of said violence”.
  • The limitations of the solution were focused on the areas of assistive tech, awareness mechanisms and innovations in data collection methodologies.
  • Our solutions could take the format of a demo app, a demo website or a social business deck.
  • Our teams could include four to six people.
  • We had from 8am–8pm on Saturday to work.
  • Our presentation needed to be 5–7 minutes long and include up to five slides.
  • The winning team would be selected by crowd voting.

Shortly after this intro session, we were given 15 minutes to have a break and to think of an idea we could announce on stage in a one-minute pitching session.

We formed teams and aligned on a concept. Upon arriving the next day for the full hack sprint, our team dissolved and another member and I joined another team. This team’s focus was on creating a single point of emergency access.

The team already had a data scientist, product manager and back-end and front-end engineers. I brought marketing, communications and business strategy to the table, while my other teammate brought UX/UI and Design to the team. Serendipitously, we were a well rounded team!

We set out by challenging the utility of the idea under the hackathon constraints. I aided in keeping our solution limited to what was viable and feasible under both the time limit and optimal format for a simple MVP presentation.

The data scientist, as the idea progenitor, led the vision. She and the UX/UI designer structured the user journey and interface pieces necessary for the demonstration. The product manager and I led the creation of branding elements, persona, scale, pitch deck and a go-to-market strategy. We also kept the team on track and oversaw project management.

Over the course of 12 hours, the scope of our project changed to accommodate the severe lack of time at our disposal. 12 hours is actually a very short time period! At the one-hour mark, the whole building came alive as teams were rushing to complete their prototypes and make sure things were live and ready for demo.

Suddenly, we were standing on stage presenting our app demo, showing the accessible features and streamlined amalgamation of queer support resources in a single point of contact. Seven other teams presented their superb responses to the challenge in various mediums.

The organizers selected the winning teams — voila — and the hackathon ended with a group photo and, of course, a LinkedIn sharing fest!

Preparing for a Hackathon

Although I had a wonderful experience at my first hackathon, there were some things I wish I’d known going into it. If you want to feel prepared, here are some things to pay attention to.

Study the Available Roles

Before you attend a hackathon, it’s a good idea to be aware of the different roles you’ll work with.

I wish I had been more familiar with technical roles such as back-end or front-end developer. My previous professional experience in large organizations meant my functions typically operated at a distance from these kinds of coworkers.

A quick study of the more technical roles at the hackathon would have given me a better understanding of what I could rely on those teammates to do.

If you’re technical yourself, you might want to investigate the non-technical roles, such as marketing or project management. This will help you better utilize all members of your team.