Hackathons and coding contests are cropping up everywhere these days. Last year’s International Space Apps Challenge claims some 8,200 participants, while a recent BitCoin hackathon promised a cool $1 million in prize money. For more altruistic types, the National Day of Civic Hacking contests is once again being held at the end of May in more than 70 cities and 7 countries around the world.
Participating in hackathons can be both lucrative and a lot of fun if you have the right skills. But while programming prowess is certainly important, “winning” a hackathon isn’t just about who can code more lines or debug faster. It turns out that the “softer” skill sets play an important role in how you are judged and what you get out of the experience.
It’s important to remember that coming in first isn’t the only way to benefit from a hackathon. Just participating can deliver a big boost to your coding skills, contact lists and job prospects.
Hackathon Tip 1: Make an effort to understand the problem set domain before you arrive at the contest. Sometimes, the hackathon subject area domain is known in advance; take the time to study up on typical problem sets to prepare yourself. If this isn’t a familiar area to you then you should think about trying a different contest.
Hackathon Tip 2: Find the right team to join if teams are allowed. If you know the problem domain in advance, you could invite a specialist to join you in the contest. One strategy is to come to the contest with friends or colleagues whom you have worked with previously so you can hit the ground running, assign tasks, and be able to collaborate more quickly. Or you could go it alone: there is nothing wrong with attempting a contest on your own, and many individuals have placed highly if they have the right motivation and can concentrate during the contest.
Hackathon Tip 3: Demonstrate leadership during the contest. Every programming team needs a leader, but leading a team isn’t just telling people to do things, but also understanding what your team’s strengths and weaknesses are and how to code around these problems. It is also about providing the right motivation, resolving conflicts quickly, and making sure communication and collaboration is flowing in a positive direction.
For example, Sam Cummings became the leader of his team at Globalhack in St. Louis: “I totally didn’t expect that to happen, but we needed someone to pull everything together and I guess I just fit into that role,” he says. As leader, Cummings had to deal with key team members dropping out early on in the contest. “Two guys told us that they would build our back-end and we never saw them again,” he said, adding that it turned out to be good practice for real-life situations where staffing requirements change.
Hackathon Tip 4: Understand who is judging the contestand what their background is. If you can form a bond with a particular judge or even just better understand their perspective, that can help you position your programming project in a better light. LinkedIn can be your friend here.
Hackathon Tip 5: It isn’t just about “winning.” While walking away with the top money prize can’t be beat, there are lots of intangible benefits from participating in a programming contest, some of which can be even more important. Cummings claims that “Participating in the hackathon motivated me to write better code in my day job, too.” Additional benefits include, finding a community of people that you like to work with, learning about yourself working under pressure, and working as part of team.
Hackathon Tip 6: “Losers” can still win big. Ask yourself what’s your real goal in competing in a hackathon? Is it winning first place and the prize that goes with it, or are you thinking bigger than that? Do you want to learn about potential employment opportunities, and impress potential employers. You don’t have to win the hackathon to succeed at that. For example, startup TopOpps hired ten GlobalHack participants to build its entire development team. That could be a way to find your next job too.
What you can tell from these tips is that there is more than one way to “win” a contest and to come away from the experience a better programmer – and maybe even a better person with a better job, too!