The n00b’s survival guide to hackathons

When I first started writing this post, I had only been to two hackathons. But now, with 7 hackathons under my belt, several fond memories and great friendships created, I think I can provide a more well-rounded view of attending hackathons. Despite that, I am still not getting rid of the n00b in the title. Even though my team and I built some really good stuff, it still doesn’t compare to the creative and technical brilliance one can see at some hackathons.

My main motivation behind talking about hackathons is to encourage current and incoming first years to put aside their misguided notions of being incompetent and dive head first into this crazy, energetic world of red bull and sugar driven development.

Without any further ado, here are seven things I have learnt from seven of my experiences

  1. Never go into a hackathon with a must win mindset

True, the Amazon Alexa and various drones make your mouth drool, nonetheless, hackathons are not about that! The way I see it now, it is about building cool hogwash (this was the closest substitute I could find for a certain four letter swear word starting with S), literally and figuratively. You create a product that (hopefully) works, which is cool, but your code is mostly spaghetti, spaghetti enough that TAs on COMP161 will give you zero for layout and code quality.

Out of the seven hackathons I attended, my worst two were the ones where we were only gunning for the prize and in the process, forgetting to have fun.  (More on this later)

2. Your first priority must be learning, learning fast 

Hackathons teach you a lot of things standard CS curriculums don’t. So you must see this as an opportunity to pick up frameworks, language paradigms, tools that you will probably never be formally taught. And the pace is dizzying. You have to learn things on the fly.

Some of the hackathon buzzwords
Some of the hackathon buzzwords

3. If you are the smartest person on the team, leave the team

This borrows from point 2. You are a first year student! You won’t learn unless someone pulls you out of your comfort zone and I believe that only happens when there is someone smart enough on the team to challenge you and your decisions.

4. Interact. Socialise. Network. 

There are ~300 people at a hackathon! Just imagine the amount of things you could learn and the experiences you could share if you spoke to them. People at hackathons are always keen to talk about what they are building, and that always serves as a great conversation starter, from there on, making friends is a cakewalk.

The attendees at HackCambridge (Courtesy: Major League Hacking)
The attendees at HackCambridge (Courtesy: Major League Hacking)

Apart from the hackers, also talk to the sponsors. Ask them about the work they do, the challenges they have brought, what have been their most memorable hacks and what free goodies are they offering today ;).

Some of the more interesting swag (Courtesy: Major League Hacking)
Some of the more interesting swag (Courtesy: Major League Hacking)

All of this not only helps build great rapport with them, but can also be useful to land you an internship when the time comes.

5. Don’t quit

Often, your code won’t be working as intended. For the first few hackathons, this is going to happen really often. But you must not get fazed by it! It’s part of the process. Sometimes, getting up and taking a stroll, talking to other hackers about their project works really well.

Another thing I would like to add over here is, don’t be afraid to pivot. Sometimes, what you might be trying to achieve is not possible in the given time frame (been there, done that, apparently, 50 epochs takes a long time). At one hackathon, my team came up with an idea about toilets at 1 A.M in the morning! And we ended up winning because of that.

6. Demo

At my first hackathon, I had created an Alexa skill that did nothing but looked for a word like funny, sad, boring in a sentence and told you something that would swing your mood the other way. All in all, it was a pretty basic thing. Compared to what my fellow hackers had made, my hack was a Commodore 64 compared to their Titans. Nonetheless, I demoed.

My team and I demoing are toilet hack. Yes, you can be happy and laugh after close to 30 hours of no sleep. (Courtesy: Major League Hacking)
My team and I demoing our toilet hack. Yes, you can be happy and laugh after close to 30 hours of no sleep. (Courtesy: Major League Hacking)

Since then, demoing has become my favourite part of the hackathon, it helps build character, especially when something doesn’t work as intended. Plus you get really cool hexagonal stickers that make a cool honeycomb on your laptop.

7. Have fun!

The jubilant HackSoc Manchester team at HackKings (Courtesy: Major League Hacking)
The jubilant HackSoc team at HackKings (Courtesy: Major League Hacking)

As a first year student, with practically no programming experience, hackathons can indeed seem really daunting. In all the frenzy surrounding the features to create, frameworks to learn, food to gobble, swag to pick up, one actually forgets about having fun. My fondest memories of hackathons have been where I have not been too serious, engaging in banter with my other hackers, getting Alexa to play Tunak Tunak at 12 in the morning or going out for impromptu walks in an amazing new city.

Panorama of Glasgow from the Necropolis
Panorama of Glasgow from the Necropolis


With all that said, stop reading this!!! Go sign up for your first hackathon on (they really didn’t pay me to write this). A world of Node.js, Alexas, Red Bull, Sponsor Memorabilia and infinite fun awaits you! 😉

Happy Hacking.