Winning Hackathon 101

Is a great idea enough to win a hackathon?

June 25th, 2017   |    By: George Krasadakis    |    Tags: Idea Validation

winning hackathon

In my tech career, I had the opportunity to experience hackathons from many different angles: as a participant, an organizer, a sponsor; a process advisor and technology provider; in plenty of cases as a winner or leader of winning teams; with both startup and corporate contexts.

I’ve experienced the challenges in leading talented teams under the time pressure of a hackathon; the stress levels of pitching ideas to leadership teams. Here is my advice to those ambitious hackathon participants:

No matter the type (corporate or public one) a hackathon is always a great opportunity to showcase your talent and skills: yes, hackathons are also about team spirit, collaboration and fun but the primary motivation of the typical participant is to win it and capitalize on that (reputation, opportunity, networking).

The competition is tough, the event itself is demanding with several hours or even days of ideation, coding, iterations and in some cases team challenges.

Is a great idea enough to win a hackathon? The short answer is NO.

You also need the right team, working practices, mentality and the right strategy. Consider the following practical hints to … hack the next hackathon.

What is this hackathon really about?

— Understand the purpose and set the right focus 🤔

The purpose of a hackathon is not always that clear. In many cases the objective — from the organizer’s point of view- is to boost collaboration and team spirit; or to promote a particular technology; or to solve a difficult problem and generate novel ideas.

You need to read behind the lines and get the full context: the timing, the theme and the recent history of hackathons can unveil the ‘hidden objectives’ and let you better define your strategy.

Also, the type of the deliverable, the evaluation criteria, the voting process and the synthesis of the panel of judges can help you figure out the priorities, design your communication strategy, set the focus areas and form the right messages to include in your presentation.

Is your idea really novel?

— Document your (great) idea(s) upfront 📝

Write down your idea(s) before the start of the hackathon; a short summary of your idea in the form of an one pager describing the problem you are about to solve, your innovative solution, your assumptions and the technologies involved will prove to be very helpful; for you and your team. Also define there the target output of your project (what will you try to build? a functional prototype, a concept + wireframes, a physical prototype, a predictive model?)

Having summarized your idea into a single page, you need to do a reality check: you might think that you have the ‘killer idea’ or that you have just discover something really novel; but, in our online and interconnected world, the chances to come up with a unique, novel idea tend to zero. You should validate your concept — do a quick web search to gather information on its uniqueness, feasibility and cost of a potential implementation. Even if you find similar technologies and solutions already offered out there, you might still have (or be able to find) differentiators to help you compete with the current players; or you might find yourself killing your idea and proceeding with an alternative one.

Do you have the right team?

— You need talent + special characters ✨

You must think and act as entrepreneur at this point: you need to make optimal use of the resources available and manage to impress your ‘customers’ and ‘sell’ you concept — all within an extremely short time frame.

Synthesizing the right team to work on your idea is critical: both the size of the team but also its diversity in terms of skills and characters can make a huge difference.

You do need the right technical expertise; you also need to execute rapidly, with quick decisions, fast iterations and agility. The characters in your team should be compatible with the fast pace of the hackathon: add the wrong characters in the mix and you will possibly end up with a nervous break-down after a couple of hours.

Hackathons are extremely fast-paced and demanding so there is no space for formalities, processes and ‘by-the-book’ practices. It is about ‘making the impossible happen in no time’ and you need to form your team with this in mind.

You need a strong product leader with clear vision and awareness of the technological capabilities; you need technical experts with agile engineering mentality; you also need a member to start thinking from the very beginning on how to present the idea/ concept/ output of your efforts.

Are you ready for rapid prototyping?

— Make assumptions, hard-code, reuse components; move fast 💨

You need to build an impressive prototype fast, and this is challenging. Normally there is the core innovation — the key components implementing your novel solution + ‘secondary components’ ranging from data, models, user interfaces, APIs to support your core components — all need to be integrated into a single functional prototype for your demos and/or the final deliverable.

You need to prioritize in order to set the focus on the right items and thus maximize the value you can deliver in such a short time frame. Instead of wasting time and energy on ‘secondary components’ (those needed for your prototype but conventional — needed only to support/frame your solution) you can hard-code them, mock data and consume existing API’s wherever possible.

Its OK to make assumptions as long as you are presenting them as part of your solution; normally it’s OK to fake some parts of the overall solution as soon as you clarify that and you also present how you would normally build it.

At the same time, you need a clear product vision (what are you building and why) and what is the critical path to build it — dependencies, priorities, checkpoints.

Are you ready to pitch?

— A great presentation can make the difference! 🗣️

Depending on the hackathon, you might be asked to deliver a video presentation along with your product design, wireframes, code, functional prototype; in some cases all of the above + a pitch to a panel of experts. It is a great strategy to pick the right guy to start preparing for this from the very beginning: to properly package and best present your great concept and work.

To get ready for your pitch, you need to understand your audience and the target panel; then you need to define the right messages and highlight the right aspects of your product/ solution; keep it simple, fast and effective; use key-statistics (could be from the public domain with references) to support your assumptions; summarize your competition, the state of the art and highlight how you are different; include commercial and marketing aspects to further support your proposal; demonstrate passion in building the real product; do rehearsals in pitching or presenting the concept; be creative, informal; add humor; ask for user feedback.

The presentation/ pitching readiness is a critical element. This preparation should start from the very beginning and run as a parallel thread throughout the hackathon.

About the Author

George Krasadakis

Product Architect with extensive experience in conceiving, engineering and driving innovative software products and online services to market; founder of ‘Datamine decision support systems’; holds more than 15 technology patents on data-driven, online concepts related to Personalization, IoT, Artificial Intelligence, Analytics and Content management; Connect with George on LinkedIn.

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