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How to Win a Hackathon

Hackathons are fun, short, intense events where a bunch of geeky developers come together to compete over creating cool software. It’s about participation, collaboration and the joy of creation.

But you also want to win.

In my first such experience, our team lost – or at least didn’t come among the top four entries. In an effort to learn and improve, I tapped into the Kaltura hivemind, quizzing a bunch of veteran developers how to get better results. Some advice might seem obvious to some, others less so. Here’s what I found:

Tips for Winning a Hackathon

  1. Start from the need, and start early: Don’t wait for the Hackathon for an idea. Start your research well before the start of the event and speak to whomever you can. Bounce ideas off potential customers or users about your project – and don’t get too tied to something. Keep an open mind and let your idea to evolve (or, just as importantly, devolve).
  2. Balance practice with theory: Your project might be aspirational but it’s worthless if it’s not also inspirational. In other words, seek an idea that works in practice and theory. Judges won’t be wowed by an idea that’s all in your head instead of in their hands. Easier said than done. Small ideas are easy to pull off, big ones hard. Aim for the sweet spot.
  3. Be funny! Hackathon’s are events where a near indistinguishable succession of computer nerds try to explain highly technical terms to an audience. That’s why it’s important to stand out, be different. Humor is one way. At the Kaltura Hackathon, one team used props (a wand and gloves). Another participant responded a little sarcastically to judges questions. Like the previous piece of advice, it’s easier said than done, yet you can improve with practice.
  4. Know your judges: Look them up on Facebook, scour the internet for information and try to speak to their interests and experience. Maybe try to address their professional experience: “just like when you were developing your company, (enter judge’s name here,) we here are trying …”
  5. Describe real world applicatino of your entry in your presentation: Say you add a new button; that button is a fuction. It, in turn, creates a new experience. In your presentation, be sure to explain how that button ties into a real world scenario (“When John Doe uses this new fuction and presses the button, he can more easily 1,2,3…”)
  6. Your team is the best possible team in the world: Prior to the hackathon, feel free to shop around for likeminded and/or talented individuals. Once you’re in a team, make every effort to do your part and bring out the best in others. Think of yourself as part of a college team rather than a professional one. You can’t trade or buy players. Make the most of what you have and build around your strengths.

Many thanks to Renan Gutman, Oren Melamed and other contributors.

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