Beginner's Guide to Hackathons

Hackathons have become a staple of the technology ecosystem, spawning new products and solutions across a multitude of disciplines and genres. Before joining a hackathon, there are several basic things you should know. Let’s start with, what is a hackathon? A hackathon is an event where developers and non-developers gather and build applications or products that solve a specific problem. Different teams will participate, each using their own skills and knowledge, plus any APIs or other technology the organizers may offer, and see what they can build.

Hackathons attract both technical, and non-technical people, who want to explore new ideas and create new solutions. Hackernoon described one hackathon they organized where "the winning team showed nothing but a PowerPoint deck but had used the weekend to find potential customers — and perfect the final pitch."

While winning a hackathon is a considerable accomplishment event, the act of participation can open up new ideas, and introduce potential developers and businesspeople to like-minded individuals in a technology community - such as the Fintech space. So what are the basic essentials you should know before diving in? Let’s check out the list below:

  1. Keep a list of great ideas to work on. Depending on the hackathon, you may be given a certain problem or project area, or you may be able to choose anything that strikes your fancy. In either case, don't use those initial hours trying to come up with an idea. Just pull out your notebook and find one you'd like to tackle. That way, you can spend that early time working on your solution rather than trying to think of it.
  2. Next, make sure you set up your team early. You usually have a few months' notice of the hackathon, so that gives you plenty of time to build your team. When Envestnet | Yodlee participates in hackathons, we identify our team members early so they all know who's going and what they'll be working on. (If you go by yourself, you can usually find a team to join.) Some hackathons are truly marathon events, others expect you to stop at night so you can rest. Either way, comfort is important, and it may not be a bad idea to have a nearby hotel roomwhere you can shower, change clothes, and even catch a few hours of sleep before you head back into the fray.
  3. Pack extra tech stuff. Don't just take your laptop and charging cable, make sure you have backups and that those backups have backups. Take a cell phone battery, an extra laptop charger, an extension cord, and even a power strip with USB ports. If you've got an extra laptop, bring it.
  4. Be sure to bring enough clothes, even if you plan on sitting in them for three days — there's still the trip home to consider — and bring food. Your hackathon location may be on the outskirts of a city, with no easy access to coffee or food. And if you want something at 3:00 AM, you're definitely going to be out of luck.
  5. Take breaks. Don't try to work in one long marathon session. Your brain burns out and it's harder to focus without a break. Plus, you're more likely to make mistakes. Instead, go for walks, do a quick workout at your hotel, attend any of the educational sessions, get some lunch or dinner with friends, and meet other attendees.
  6. Get plenty of rest. If your hackathon breaks for the night, get some sleep. Even though you may be tempted to hang out late with your new colleagues, avoid the temptation. If you're able to work all night, take a few hours to sleep anyway. Find a couch or quiet piece of floor and get some sleep. And don't forget the power of the short nap! If you need to take a quick 20 minute nap, set a countdown timer on your mobile phone, stick it in your pocket, and close your eyes. Sleep research has shown a quick 20 minute nap is enough to refresh you for several hours.
  7. There will be plenty of networking time and even meals together, so make sure you meet new people. These are people who share your skills, knowledge, and interests, so now is your chance to learn from each other and develop new friendships and business relationships. You never know when one of those chance meetings will turn into an amazing opportunity later, so don't ever hide yourself away at a hackathon.
  8. Just know that you may not finish before the end. If people could come up with working solutions to big problems in a single weekend, we'd all work that way. Instead, it's more important to come up with a viable solution that not only solves the problem, but looks nice. The judges will understand if your solution isn't 100% complete after only 24 hours of actual work time. But if it's a good enough idea, the judges or even a sponsor or financial institution may be interested enough in your solution to give you time and money to develop it later. This is why it's important to keep a list of your good ideas early on.
  9. Practice your pitch. Whether you're done or not, you want to make sure you know what you're talking about and that you sound polished. So make sure you save plenty of time to break off the development and start working on your presentation.
  10. Build a small slide deck. Create a few screenshots of the important steps that users will take (this is a big part of what you should be working on too). Make sure you know early on who's going to do the talking, and start writing down what you want to say. Your last hour or two should be about you making a smooth presentation. (Remember the team that never actually developed a product, but had a great idea? They won because of their presentation. They also met a lot of potential customers, which is why networking is important.)
  11. Don't worry about being nervous. Many people hate public speaking, and are terribly nervous when they get on stage. Don't let that stop you. In fact, if you're not nervous, you may not be prepared — nervous people have prepared extensively and know all the things that couldgo wrong; non-nervous people didn't prepare, and have no idea what could happen to them.

Hackathons are a great amount of fun and provide great opportunities for career growth, because you not only meet interesting people, you can come up with solutions to a problem many people need. You can win prizes, find new opportunities, and even find a new job. If you want to learn more about how to participate in hackathons with Envestnet | Yodlee, whether it's one we organize or one we're attending, please visit our developers page at https://developer.yodlee.com/.