Hackernoon logoSurviving your first hackathon by@adrienne.tacke

Surviving your first hackathon

Adrienne Tacke Hacker Noon profile picture

@adrienne.tackeAdrienne Tacke

Software Engineer

There’s much more to it than coding all night!

Me, @Adrienne.Tacke at HACK/HLTH!

Quick Jump

So a hackathon has come into town and you’re thinking of participating…Awesome! Before you fire up VS Code and start coding the next big thing, be sure to read this guide to help you prepare for all the cool stuff (and not so cool but important stuff)!

Happy reading and happy hacking!


Usually, you register for hackathons through their website or a third-party ticketing site like Eventbrite. Since hackathons have become a bit more popular, almost all of them require you to have a ticket to participate. Don’t worry, though! Tickets are mostly free or cost a minimal amount. The ones that I have been to have been hosted by AngelHack and their hackathon tickets cost $10 (US dollars).

Register quickly, though! Once tickets are sold out, that’s it.

Travel Stipend

Don’t live in the city the hackathon is being hosted in? If the hackathon in question is hosted by AngelHack, you’re in luck! They pay a travel stipend to qualified participants! The stipend changes, but the average amount they will reimburse you for travel/lodging expenses is ~$125. At the HACK/HLTH hackathon I attended last May, they reimbursed qualified participants $150!

To qualify for it, they enforce some simple criteria:

  • Check-in onsite to the hackathon (aka have your ticket scanned and get your wristband)
  • Submit a project
  • Demo to the judges at the scheduled time after the hackathon coding hours are over

These are some fair rules to ensure that those who attend have really participated and have stayed for the whole hackathon!

If it’s not hosted by AngelHack, don’t fret! Be sure to visit your hackathon’s website and check to see if they have a similar policy. You never know!

Fresh Code Rule

Most hackathons institute a “Fresh Code” rule, which means all code related to your idea should be written onsite and within the designated coding time AT the hackathon. This helps prevent cheating and ensures that everyone starts the hackathon on equal footing. You’ll probably be asked to agree to this rule when you register, so keep this in mind and be sure to abide by it!

Preparing for the Hackathon

Awesome! Now you’re registered and awaiting the big day. While you’re waiting, I’ve broken down some timelines of what to do to prepare for the hackathon to maximize your experience!

A Few Weeks Before

As the hackathon nears, it’s a good idea to start brainstorming ideas related to the hackathon’s topic or sponsor APIs if you don’t already have one. Usually, topics focus around an industry (healthcare, finance), technology (AWS, Microsoft, sponsor APIs), or some other niche event (EDC hackathon, anyone?).

The last hackathon I went to was HACK/HLTH which focused on the healthcare industry. HACK/HLTH in particular had an overall objective for winning the grand prize (create an innovative app that revolutionized the healthcare industry in some way) as well as smaller sponsor challenges (create an app that utilizes a sponsor’s API and solves a specific problem in the healthcare industry) which includes their own sponsor prizes.

So how do you decide what to build?

Personally, I like to go through the sponsor challenges and see what they are about. They are usually niche enough or have an interesting API that helps narrow down a list of ideas. You can usually view them online on the hackathon’s website in advance. They do this to help kick-start your imagination!

Alternative Method 1: Another way to help you choose is to determine if any of the sponsor APIs align with an existing idea you already have. For me, this ended up being the deciding factor in choosing Redox’s challenge as their API was exactly what I needed to help me build my automatic patient check-in app.

Alternative Method 2: See what hardware sponsors offer you to build with. At HACK/HLTH, sponsor fitbit allowed teams to borrow a fitbit if teams wanted to develop with it or for it! If you always wanted to build something for fitbit or an app that integrates with their device, this would be a natural choice!

Alternative Method 3: See what prizes the sponsors offer! If you need extra motivation or really can’t decide, maybe choosing the prize you’d like to win the most will help you think of an idea! ;)

Whatever your motivation is for choosing a specific sponsor challenge, having at least a shortlist in mind will help save you and your team valuable time on hackathon day.

Remember the Fresh Code Rule though…

While it’s good to start thinking of ideas, try your best to restrain yourself from actually coding. But wait! You can do a lot of other things beforehand though! This includes:

  • Mockups
  • User flows
  • User personas
  • Color themes and palettes
  • Team Name/App Name
  • Team logo/App logo
  • Outlined notes
  • Anything else that isn’t code itself

Believe it or not, what usually takes the most time is brainstorming and picking an idea to work with. If you and your team can do this prior to hackathon day, you’ll already be at an advantage. Further, if you get even a couple of mockups and user flows done before the hackathon, you’ll be WAY ahead. The more you have prepared beforehand (except actual code!), the more time you’ll have to spend on actual coding.

There will be some suspicious activity…

Now, when you actually get to the hackathon, there will be some groups that seem to skirt by the Fresh Code rule and make it seem completely obvious that they definitely had a head-start (I’m looking at you, group that had a full-featured game with custom graphics built in 24 hours!).

Yeah, I coded ALL of this onsite within 24 hours. /s

It’ll be tempting to sink to that level, but don’t do it. Write your code at the hackathon and participate the right way. At the end of the hacking, you’ll have coded a solution fairly, maybe even win, and maintain enviable good character all at the same time.

The Night Before

Whoa! Now it’s the night before the hackathon (how did time move so fast?!).

You’ll probably want to prepare a few things for tomorrow morning. Obviously, you have your laptop, charger, headphones, and that beautiful brain of yours. However, based on experience (I’ve been to 3 hackathons now?), I’ve created a quick list of things you may want to bring that you might not have thought of:

What to pack

  • Toothbrush and toothpaste (after coding all night, don’t let the judges disqualify you THAT quick!)
  • Change of clothes/shoes (nicer/business professional attire for pitching/demoing)
  • Hardware (Alexa, VR headset, anything that assists with your idea)
  • Pillow/blanket or sleeping bag (usually, there will be designated sleeping areas that you can take a power nap in)
  • Jacket (the AC in most venues can get pretty cold at night!)

Lastly, a few final tips:

  • Double check the address of the hackathon venue and save directions to your phone if you need to
  • Screenshot your hackathon tickets on your phone for easier access during Check-In
  • Watch for any last minute emails from the hackathon host for conference room changes, parking information, and other important details
  • Work out any carpooling plans with your team

Now get some rest! You have an awesome day ahead of you!

Hackathon Day

Today’s the day! Are you excited?!


For the purposes of this guide, I’ll be basing the next few topics on a 24-hour hackathon (specifically HACK/HLTH, the hackathon I attended last May!). Adjust accordingly if yours is shorter or longer. :)

Typical Agenda

Your day will usually look like this:

9:00 am | Check-In and Registration

You’ll get your ticket scanned here, probably get some cool swag, obtain a wristband for entry/exit privileges, and officially be registered into the hackathon!

This way to HACK/HLTH Check-In!

9:00 am-11:00 am | Breakfast!

Also, now would be a good time to find a table at the main conference hall if you don’t already have one. If you don’t get the seat you want, don’t worry, you’ll probably move to another location anyway (more on that soon). You can also start talking to the sponsors of your choice if you’ve decided on a few and get comfortable with the people at that table (these will most likely be your first round judges!).

Lastly, go around the room now to pick up some awesome swag! Stickers, shirts, USB drives…they’ll be gone by the end of the hackathon!


11:00 am | CODING BEGINS!

Official start-time for fair coding to begin.

11:15 am -11:45 am | Sponsor pitches

Sponsors will head to the stage and give a quick intro about who they are, what their individual challenge is, what APIs they offer and would like you to use, and what the prizes are! Listen carefully as they may reveal what they are specifically looking for when it comes to their challenge!

11:30 am -12:00 pm | Attendee pitches

If you came alone and want to find a team, or if you are a smaller team looking for an individual with a particular set of skills you don’t currently have, this would be your chance to speak to the crowd and make that known! Don’t be shy!

12:00 pm -2:00 pm | Lunch/Networking

Get some grub! Take a break and make some new friends. Learn about what others are doing and see how they are interpreting the challenges.

Also, by this time, you’ll have heard most of the important announcements in the main hall. If your venue is at a hotel or larger conference center, scope out a separate area to be your main “coding” hub. I prefer peace and quiet and not too much commotion, so I tend to find a nice, cozy couch away from the main conference hall that has working plugs, still has a good Wi-Fi connection, and is somewhat close to the restrooms. You’ll thank me later if you choose to do this. :)

If this isn’t an option for you, or if you aren’t bothered by commotion and lots of people in one area, then feel free to stay in the main conference hall where the tables have been set up for the hackathon!

1:00 -4:30pm | Sponsor Breakout Sessions

Sometimes, sponsors hold individual breakout sessions to talk more in-depth about their challenge and their APIs. This is a great time to ask any questions related to their tech, validate that their API supports what you’re intending to build, and just get even more comfortable with the sponsor reps that will you will be pitching to.

Keep in mind, however, that these are completely optional! If you know your idea in and out and have a solid understanding of the sponsor’s API you are using, then skip the session! It is valuable coding time that will help you in the long run :)

6:00pm -8:00pm | Dinner

Don’t forget to eat! Meals are usually provided and they are pretty good! Here’s my dinner from HACK/HLTH:

From my Instagram account. Follow me for more insider looks at tech events!

8:00pm | Pitch Workshop

If this is your first time pitching or would like some tips on effective ways to pitch your idea to judges, then be sure to make some time for this workshop! The hosts usually give you a great breakdown of how to structure your pitch, what is and what isn’t important to mention, and how to create an effective pitch.

Also, see my abbreviated version of an effective pitch below.

11:00pm -1:00am | Midnight Snack

Pizza, anyone?

// Technically, the next day

1:00am -6:00am | 🎵 ALL NIGHT LONG….We code, we code 🎵 (Sung to the tune of “All Night Long” by Lionel Ritchie)

If you need to, there are usually designated sleeping areas the hackathon will provide for power naps. This is where those sleeping bags/pillow and blanket will come in handy if you decide to use one!

6:30am -8:30am | Breakfast

By now, this would be a good time to be code complete. This gives you and your team time to practice your pitch, go through some test runs of your demo (and still have enough time to fix any bugs!), change into your “pitching” attire, and freshen up before the Round 1 Demos.

11:00am | Submission Deadline, Coding Ends

Hands up! Coding time is officially over.

Your project should be submitted to the appropriate sources and your team should be signed up to pitch to the sponsor you chose.

11:15 PM -1:15 PM: Lunch

12:00 PM -2:30 PM: Round 1 Demos

This is it! Now’s your time to shine and pitch your idea to the sponsor judges. This usually means falling in line for the sponsor’s table you are pitching to and pitching your idea to the sponsor judges when it’s your turn. Breathe, relax, and remember your elevator pitch. You’ve practiced with your team just before this. You’ll be fine. Knock ’em dead!

2:30 PM -3:15 PM: Judges Deliberation

You’ve made it this far. Congratulations! You’ve just participated in your first full hackathon! Now, the hard part…Waiting for the judges to deliberate and then announce their Round 1 winners. Good luck!

3:15 PM -4:45 PM: Final Demos

If you and your team made it past Round 1, congratulations! This either means you won the sponsor’s challenge or were selected by them to move forward to the Final Demo round. Here, you and your team will have an opportunity to do a live demo of what you have just built and pitch to an open conference session of hackathon attendees, conference attendees, and conference exhibitors! Once all the Round 1 winners have demoed, the judges will deliberate once again to decide the final winners of the hackathon!

4:45 PM -5:30 PM: Judges Deliberate

And again, we wait…Good luck!

Grand prize! Grand prize! C’mon!

5:30 PM -6:00 PM: Opening Keynote

6:00 PM -6:30 PM: Winners & Awards

This is it! The BIG one! Final winners are announced and handed big paper checks of their winnings! 😁

Helpful Hackathon Tips

So, that’s a 24-hour hackathon in a nutshell!

The following sections are more in-depth tips on several important topics related to the hackathon. Feel free to peruse them all!

Breakdown of Time

Now, everything in the agenda is pretty straightforward. How you split up the remaining coding time is up to you and your team. It will differ depending on whether or not your team has an idea, how complex the proposed idea is, the individual skill sets and level of experience each member has, and what each team member wants to work on.

While you figure these things out with your team, keep the following guidelines in mind for how much time to spend on these tasks:

- Brainstorming/Choosing a Challenge = 1–2 hours MAX

Trust me, don’t do what I did with my team at our first hackathon. By the time we decided on the “perfect” idea, we had wasted 1/3 of our coding time. Needless to say, we didn’t finish with an MVP that was demo-able.

Instead, follow the earlier advice I gave and brainstorm BEFORE the hackathon! Have that shortlist of ideas ready and use the hackathon time to vet and select your final idea!

Ended up choosing the sponsor Redox as their challenge aligned with our idea!

- Team delegation of tasks = 30 min

This should be a quick, stand-up style meeting with your team to be sure you’re on the same page. In this way, no two people spend precious time working on the same thing.

- Coding = as much as possible, usually ~ 10 hours

The more time you have, the better. You never know what bugs might come up, what configuration issues may occur with sponsor APIs, or what extra work you might have to take over due to a sleepy teammate!

If you take anything away from this, try to give you and your team as much coding time as possible!

- Practicing your pitch = 1 hour

I usually save this for the following day, usually right after breakfast. By this time, my team is hopefully code complete. This is a great time to do a real demo with your app, work out any kinks in your pitch, decide which team members will speak and which will handle the demo/devices, and catch any last minute bugs!

If you can make it a priority to reserve an hour for this, I guarantee that your pitch will be a lot more relaxed, focused, and effective. It’s always better than just “winging it”.

- Sleeping = 2–4 hours

Depending on your tolerance for lack of sleep, you may or may not use some additional time for a power nap! If you KNOW that you won’t be able to pitch to the judges in the morning (or otherwise be coherent), please try to plan a power nap at some point! Or, if you’ve chosen a designated speaker to do your pitch, make sure he/she is somewhat rested before your pitch!

Your team’s idea and code will be for nothing if you don’t even make it to the pitching session!

Took a 45min power nap. Now back to coding…

How to Pitch Effectively

While the code is certainly an important part of the hackathon, I would say the pitch is the most important. You can have the best idea in the world or the cleanest code written in 24 hours (we can dream, right?) but if you can’t convey that greatness to the judges, then you probably won’t move forward to the next round! For first round pitches, you are usually limited to two minutes! That’s why it’s so important to capture the essence of your idea and pitch it effectively.

For extra assistance, be sure to attend the Pitch Workshop your hackathon hosts if they do one.

For me, the following have been the best tips for creating an effective pitch:

Keep it simple

Don’t go into the tech and don’t overwhelm the judges with the architecture. Yes, some will have a technical background, but they are looking for solutions to the problems they posed to you. If they can’t sense that within the first minute of your pitch, then revise it.

Tell a story

You’ve seen it in Shark Tank probably. A couple of entrepreneurs have a relatable, personal story, one that poses an obvious problem. Alas, they have JUST the solution for that problem and here it is!

Follow this pattern as I’ve seen for myself that it works. Focus on the story and the problem for the first 45 seconds to a minute of your pitch. Then lead the judges into the answer, your solution, and show them the demo you’ve prepared. If they can understand the problem clearly and also immediately see how your idea has solved that problem, it’s most likely an effective pitch!

Be organized

This complements the tip to practice your pitch with your team prior to the Round 1 Demos/Pitching session. Nothing is worse than seeing a team that’s not on the same page, talking over each other, and scrambling to get through the demo. If your team has prepared its pitch, knows beforehand the delegation of responsibilities for the demo, and is aligned with your common goal, then you will present yourselves in a better, more organized light.

That will always benefit you. :)

That’s it! Go out there and conquer that hackathon!

Me, conquering HACK/HLTH :D

Thank you for reading “Surviving your first hackathon” by me, Adrienne Tacke! If you liked it, give it a clap (or 10, or 50 😉) and consider sharing it!

You may also like some other articles I’ve written. Check them out!

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Three things I wish I knew before becoming a software developer

For more tech articles, insider looks at tech events, and a peek inside my life as a software developer in Las Vegas, follow me here on Medium, Instagram, Twitter, or my website!

Feel free to contact me for software development advice or for business opportunities!



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