A 30something’s First Hackathon

Considering a hackathon and aren’t sure what to expect? I went through my first one this weekend and I’m recounting a few takeaways while they’re fresh.

***SPOILER: WE WON***

Should I have a team in advance?

I did not, and I feel like this can go either way. My hackathon (and it sounds like most) have team formation events to help you join a team or add members. We were communicating through a discord server that had a designated “team formation” channel that opened up the day before the hacking started. Here people were introducing themselves individually and as partially formed teams looking for missing pieces. This is how I found my team—I reached out to a two person team and offered up my services as an addition. I then brought in someone else that I found afterwards with a complimentary skillset, completing our team of four.

It felt a bit like speed dating! I had to turn down someone I really really liked after a lengthy conversation. She just wasn’t going to be around enough for the actual work, despite her extremely lofty goals. This was surprisingly awkward. I felt guilty—as if I’d led her on. But I had to stick to my guns about what I was looking for in teammates.

I also just kind of…ignored the DM’s of people who felt like matches I might ignore on tinder. “U gotta team yet?” ←swipe left.

Flying solo gave me a very specific, intense experience which was awesome for my first time. But there are definite logistical benefits to showing up as a team. Next time I’ll either work with this team again if they’re available, or try to enlist other friends. But if I can’t find a team in advance, I won’t let that deter me from attending! I learned so much—I know I’ll be a better teammate in the future either way. Or I’ll skip the hack all together and just enjoy the events! When we were in the weeds towards the end I missed out on some fun games and enticing seminars.

A screenshot at a beginner’s event!

Is it intense?

It’s as intense as you make it! I, for one, really leaned into the “-athon” of it all. I knew I wanted to attend as many events as possible, and to help build a working application. So I made sure I worked out hard at the gym Friday before it started, but I barely left my computer after that until it was over. Seriously, I didn’t leave my tiny studio apartment for the entire 36 hours and barely took breaks. My boyfriend was horrified.

Friday: Opening ceremony event. Code code code. First time hacker seminar. Code. Meet with team to get on the same page. Start over because we weren’t on the same page. Boyfriend made dinner. Thank you, amazing boyfriend. Code some more. Jackbox games with fellow hackers! Sleep.

Saturday: Code code code. Meet with new teammate. Boyfriend brings eggs. Code code. Code code code. Meet with teammate again. Code. Cry. Give up and play animal crossing for an hour. See teammates’ awesome progress and get second wind. Boyfriend provides sustenance yet again. Code code code. Code code. Sleep.

Sunday: Code code. Write readme. Craft submission. Code. Meet with team. Code while meeting with team. Record demo. Edit demo. Submit project with NINE MINUTES to spare. Eat salad standing at the refrigerator straight out of the bowl. Take a pickle back shot with relieved boyfriend.

I know I went to the bathroom a few times. I…must have. Definitely didn’t shower.

Am I too old?

No. This felt clear almost immediately. Sure, there were a lot of high school, and college-age hackers (and event leaders) but no one cared AT ALL how old anyone was. If anything, my life experience was an asset.

Do I need any particular skillset?

No! Anyone can contribute to a team. Under such a time crunch, we would have been happy to have someone who could have just written the ReadMe! I could have joined a team of python coders, written one function and been proud. I’ve never written a line of python in my life and would have spent the weekend learning a new language. And here’s something I didn’t consider in advance—your data doesn’t have to persist. Your app doesn’t have to be full stack. It doesn’t even have to work! A lot of teams submitted projects that were very cool concepts with wireframes and designs. It could be anything from a repl.it CLI app to a single page of beautiful HTML & CSS. It all depends on what you think you and your team are capable of getting done over the time provided. And you can still win categories! Check out the categories & challenges in advance, you might be surprised. My hackathon had prizes for the team with the most first-time hackers. A prize for the most high-school hackers. My favorite award was that for the biggest fail! Love that.

Tips:

MAKE A GOAL. The first partner I turned down gave me a great piece of advice that I will take with me to every hackathon: decide what you personally want to get out of it. Do you want to win? Do you want to meet people and have fun? Do you want to attend as many events as possible? Do you want to build something that works? Is there a specific challenge that peaks your interest? Focusing on what YOU want to get out of it will help you choose a team (or opt out of the hack) and feel good about it.

MEET WITH YOUR TEAM. Early and as often as possible. My team was trying to chat most of our conversations initially and this led to some misalignment early on. Get on the same page as early as humanly possible and check in regularly. This would have saved us a lot of time and I’ll push for this earlier going forward.

PLAN. Spend a bit more time early on planning exactly what you want your hack to do. I know with the clock running it’s tempting to dive in and start coding, but the more planning you do early on, the less time you are likely to spend on time wasting “uh oh….we didn’t think about….” moments. Also plan with your team where your code will live. Will you be deploying? How will all of the parts and pieces you’re working on separately come together? Obviously you won’t have every answer on day one, but as many of these details that you can iron out early on, the better.

Why!?!?

  1. I’m trying to put myself out there as a Software Engineer.
  2. I’m finding the job hunting process soul crushing and wanted to let loose a bit.
  3. I can’t resist an opportunity to try something new.
  1. I learned a ton in a low stakes environment. I put so much pressure on myself in job interviews, and while yeah, I still really pushed myself, I knew it was all just for fun.
  2. And it WAS fun. My team was awesome and when we pulled things off as a group it was a craaaazy high!
  3. It was the git crash course I needed. I’m such a noob—working with a team on a project in git like this under such a time crunch helped me push through some of those fears. I still don’t feel like I’m swimming in the deep end, but it forced me to paddle around a bit more.
  4. I now have answers to a whole slew of job interview questions in regards to working on team projects I didn’t have before.
  5. I’ve been coding in such a bubble. I learned a lot from my teammate’s perspectives on the code I was working on and their approaches to solving those problems.
  6. More confidence—hey, WE WON! I found a great team, contributed a lot to the project, we got it finished, deployed, submitted in time and we won our category!!!

Catch our award winning entry here: https://devpost.com/software/artglobe

ArtGlobe
ArtGlobe
https://devpost.com/software/artglobe

Ex-rocker turned programmer.