Eventornado blog The Ultimate Survival Guide For Your First Ever (Virtual) Hackathon

The Ultimate Survival Guide For Your First Ever (Virtual) Hackathon

Written by

Sabreen Swan

Content Strategist/Writer at Eventornado.

Hackathons sound scary, but most people forget that a lot of these events are great for beginners too.

The truth is, not everyone at a hackathon is a professional with years of hacking experience under their belt. Lots of people attend out of curiosity, or to network and dip their toe in the water.

And even in these new virtual settings we’ve all been getting used to, hackathons are great fun where you get to meet new people, come up with great ideas and learn how to create cool products you can be proud of.

But if it’s your first-ever hackathon, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little nervous.

Well, fear not, hacking friends! We’re going to walk you through some tips, tricks and insights to help you prepare, make the most of the event and have fun while doing so. Let’s jump in.

Hackathons are for everyone

Firstly, hats off to you for joining your first-ever hackathon. Not many people do and it shows resilience, passion and innovation. Go you!

The truth is, hackathons are for everyone. 

Yep, you read right, no typos here. Hackathons aren’t just for developers you ask?

Not at all. Hackathons need a range of skills and experience—designers to share graphics and charts, writers to translate concepts, business developers to build business plans, and of course, developers. You know, to build the thing.

Any stereotype that says hackathons are only being for coders is just that—a stereotype. And an inaccurate one, at that. There are lots of different ways to join a hackathon, even if you’re not a coder—and they’re just as important.

Before you consider joining any hackathon, always double-check the events page of the hackathon to find out what skills and experience are needed.

Why join a hackathon in the first place?

There are tons of brilliant reasons why someone might join a hackathon. For one thing, working in a team can produce vastly superior results compared to working alone, especially when innovating.

But apart from being a badass thing to do, a hackathon can help you:

  • Learn more about your industry and gain fresh perspectives
  • Build your teamwork skills
  • Meet potential employers/colleagues and investors
  • Learn new skills and hacks 
  • Build on your presentation skills
  • Contribute to a larger purpose and become a part of something
  • Meet like-minded professionals 
  • Join a global community
  • Finally work on that idea (you know, the one you’ve been pondering since forever)

But let’s get into what you really came here for. How to not botch your first hackathon. Or rather, 6 tips to get you prepared!

9 survival guide tips for your first ever (virtual) hackathon

1. Don’t be afraid to register solo 

The thought of rocking up (virtually) to a hackathon might seem intimidating but there’s absolutely nothing weird about it.

In fact, individuals arriving at hackathons on their own is so common that hackathon organisers have now implemented systems to match individual participants up with each other.

In the hackathon world, we call that matchmaking or more commonly “team formation”, and it’s how participants go from arriving solo to forming a winning hackathon team

At a physical hackathon, there are dedicated team formation rooms where participants can get chatting, exchange ideas and build their teams. 

For virtual hackathons, you have online channels and dedicated workspaces to help people find the right people teams for their ideas or vice versa.

So if you’re a newbie, you’ve nothing to fear. There will be plenty of others joining without a team, and with online chat and virtual workspaces, you’ll find some great teammates in no time.

2. But do brainstorm before the hackathon

It’s completely normal to join a hackathon without a team, and even without an idea. But that doesn’t mean you should plan to show up completely unprepared.

From the moment you sign up for the hackathon, get brainstorming. 

Is there a theme you’ve been asked to stick to? Having a few guidelines might make it a little easier to come up with some ideas at the start.

If the hackathon is hosted by a company, think about ways you can incorporate their product into a fresh idea—or how to incorporate something fresh into their product.

Even if you can’t come up with anything, it’s a great start and you’ll be putting yourself in the right headspace to contribute to something great when the hackathon begins. 

Another brainstorming tip is to look up the judges for the hackathon and dive into their areas of expertise for some inspiration for projects you could build.

3. Stay away from energy drinks and sugary snacks

Hackathons are designed to be hyper-stimulating, which is why they rarely last more than 48 hours. 

With such a tight time constraint, it’s no wonder hackers stay up all night and plough themselves with so-called “energising” snacks.

A word of advice. 

Hackathons are incredibly energy-consuming, both mentally and physically, and you’ll do yourself no favours by attempting all-nighters and chugging sugary Gatorade for a whole weekend. 

Fuel your body properly and keep some healthy fibre-filled snacks on hand like trail mix, granola bars and fruit.

Devise a smart sleep or nap schedule to stick to and feed your body foods to help your brain stay focused and alert.

Forget about Cheetos and fizzy drinks—they’ll only make you crash before you finish your project, which will be a disaster for yourself and your teammates.

We know hackathons are great fun but they can also be very gruelling. So even though it can be tempting to use it as an excuse to binge on unhealthy snacks (and even beer), it’s just not the smart thing to do (and you know it).

Remember this is a hackathon, not a snackathon, people!

4. Take advantage of the mentors

Hackathons usually have dedicated mentors available to help teams with their ideas. Don’t be afraid to talk to them!

Mentors will usually have years of industry experience from various fields and may have mentored at other hackathons in the past. 

You’ve got rare access to invaluable insight that you can’t get anywhere else.

Don’t miss the opportunity to get their opinion whenever you’re stuck, need clarification or even just want to explain your idea to someone outside your team for a fresh perspective.

It might be more challenging during a virtual hackathon, as it’s not a case of seeing someone and calling them over to your table, but you’ll still have opportunities to approach them inside chat rooms and virtual workspaces.

Remember, mentors have chosen to spend their weekend at the hackathon, and they’re excited to help you!

5. Talk with other teams 

We know what you’re thinking. Talk to other teams?! They’re the enemy!

During a physical hackathon, people get up, grab snacks and stretch their legs—which means there are plenty of opportunities for chit chat.

In a virtual hackathon, you’ll have to make an active effort if you want to talk to people—and it’s important that you do exactly that.

Hackathons are competitions but they’re so much more than that. They’re fantastic opportunities to meet like-minded people in an inclusive and collaborative space.

The likelihood of someone stealing your idea in just a couple of hours, after a five-minute chit chat about your idea is highly unlikely anyway, so put your ego to the side, and get mingling—it’s what hackathons are all about!

6. Know what you want to achieve from the hackathon

There are so many great reasons to join a hackathon and even more ways to make the most of your experience. 

But without a clear goal (or at the very least, an idea) of what you want to get out of it, you may miss out on an awesome opportunity.

Do you have an idea you’ve been dreaming about and want to finally work on and showcase? Do you want to learn a new skill? Do you want to network and maybe even score a job opportunity? Are you in it to win it?

Try to make your goal as clear as possible and drill down on it. You’ll be able to prep much more efficiently if you know what you’re hoping to achieve, and it will also help you manage your time better when the day comes.

7. And then prepare for it one week before the hackathon

Once you’ve figured out your goal, it’s time to get to work. ‘But the hackathon hasn’t even started!’ we hear you cry. 

Well, that’s exactly the point.

Give yourself a headstart and feel confident and prepared when the event begins.

If your goal is to network and build relationships, research who will be attending, know who the judges and mentors are, and make a list of people you want to talk to.

Do you want to learn a new skill? Get a headstart and get stuck into tutorials. You can start to familiarise yourself with the new tech stack by building mock prototypes of products at home. If it’s a new coding language or framework, this is the perfect time to dive in.

Are you there to win it? Start creating your pitch deck! If you already have an idea in mind, you can stay two steps ahead of everyone else by designing your assets and logos ahead of time. 

You can even practice delivering your pitch so you can knock the judges’ socks off when the moment arrives. 

And even if you’re not required to pitch your idea (some virtual hackathons have another process for this), it’s still a great way to familiarise yourself with the idea and boost your confidence in the process.

8. Timebox certain tasks

It’s no secret that time flies during a hackathon. Hell, it sprints straight past you. 

Hackathons usually last 24-48 hours, so assuming you would like to eat and sleep a little during that time, you’re going to want to timebox a few things. 

Timeboxing is just a fancy way of saying “dedicate a fixed, maximum amount of time for an activity”. 

That means before the hackathon actually begins, it’s a good idea to team huddle to get a general sense of who will work on what, and roughly how much time you expect to dedicate to each area.

Timebox certain tasks and make a note of when you agree to simply move on from it, even if you couldn’t solve things in the end. 

It might seem counterproductive now, but when bugs come up (and come up, they will), you’re going to be glad you pre-empted how much time you’ll allow yourself to fix it before moving on to plan B. 

If you don’t, you’ll fixate on issues for too long and eventually have nothing to demo when pitching comes around. 

In other words, it’s better to have a pitchable product with a few holes, rather than a perfect feature of a product you couldn’t finish.

9. Try your best and enjoy the experience

The most important piece of advice we have for you? Get a good night’s sleep and get ready for an action-packed, fun weekend!

Hackathons are great fun, whether your team wins or not, so take it all in, enjoy the experience and give it your best. You’ll give yourself the best chance of success if you come prepared, you communicate with your teammates respectfully (especially when you disagree), and aim to be a pleasant person to work with. 

Remember, it’s a hackathon, not a question of life or death—so put your game face on, have fun, and get hacking!

Still not decided which hackathon to join? Here’s a list of our upcoming hackathons.


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