Five quick tips from a fool who won a hackathon on their first try
It’s all about the presentation. The moment you start thinking like an engineer of Sauron and think “how many sponsors can I put under the dominion of this one application” that’s when you’ll find you’ve lost your focus. Just don’t try to incorporate more than three sponsors. Like the Elven rings, three is a better number than seven or nine.
Have a method pre-planned out for deployment. Yes, you should get sleep, or at least the person presenting, but if you don’t sleep then you don’t want to spend the hours of 2 to 4 AM figuring out how to deploy with a new technology or how to setup a Mongo database. In case you do I’ve just published a step-by-step walkthrough on how to publish with ElasticBeanstalk. (We won our hackathon) Save any middle of the night work for stuff that’s brainless or has step-by-step fail-safe instructions. Typos are the biggest killers to the late night coder.
Spend the first couple of hours or so on design and in planning exactly what you will demo. I know you’re super excited to hack with a new technology or to imagine the endless possibilities of innovation and glory. But remember the programmer’s credo: “we don’t do things because they’re easy but because we thought they were easy when we started.” By focusing and practicing on what you will actually be able to demonstrate during your one to two minute window, you’ll insure that you are in some sense trying to achieve something manageable. Or at the very least, that you’ll be able to hard code a demonstration.
Don’t be afraid to hard code your demonstration. It really should be your primary plan of attack with functionality as your backup plan. It’s much easier to say, “well, we spent all night coding this to work but it doesn’t so at least we can demo how we thought it’s supposed to work” rather than saying to yourself, “we don’t have anything to demonstrate and we spent all night trying to figure out how to achieve synchronization between Alexa and our mobile app that we’re too tired to hope for anything less than functional.”
It’s a little like that old game show trick of showing nothing behind door number two and then asking the contestant if they’d like to switch their guess from door number one to door number three. Mathematically you know that you’ve got better odds if you switch but the “consistency principle” convinces you to stick to your guns in spite of what is best for you. In other words, if you don’t start with a plan for failure then you’ll have no problem riding a glorious broken chariot into the sun when you’re sleep deprived instead of doing the practical alternative.
Lastly, if you can’t think of a good business idea here are two good yard sticks (or meter sticks) for judging the business efficacy of your idea. Can the judges figure out your “beachhead” target group from the first couple of seconds of the presentation? Are you focusing on a business niche that is still in the stone age? (Like industrial manufacturing or anything that feels like the government?) As my start-up genius cousin says, find a stone age niche and Uber it.
There’s more I could say on the business aspects but not all hackathons judge based on business viability.
Always make your plan B, having fun and learning. I really didn’t expect to win on my first try and it was a bit shocking when I did. All I wanted was a little more street creds for my skills in learning Node, AWS and MEAN stack. I got really lucky with some great teammates that I had met on the day of the event.
I was happy to have achieved my goal of getting MEAN stack experience and the Kindle Fire HD 6 that I brought home was a nice gift for the family that I had abandoned for the weekend. ;)
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