This gathering didn’t have much of a formal structure, as it was really more about a group of American developers side-stepping export regulations. The event must have been fun (or at least very productive), however, since it spawned an annual invitation-only series that switched focus to freeform OpenBSD coding. Sun also used the term for an event at the JavaOne conference that same year shortly after the OpenBSD event took place.
While there’s still no formal structure to (or even specific dictionary definition of) a hackathon, their increasing popularity over the past decade has led to at least something of a standardized format. They’re usually organized around a central theme — game development for a particular platform, work on an open-source project, developing apps, or even a particular intersection of science and tech such as bioinformatics. Things kick off with some presentations, maybe some workshops. Then the participants are turned loose to code amongst themselves, often organized into groups by their areas of expertise.
A few interesting branches of the hackathon have been emerging in the last few years. One is the socially-focused or charitable hackathon, such as the annual NHS Hackaday and Random Hacks of Kindness. Another is the company-sponsored hackathon, held internally for employees by major tech players like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Netflix. And some are demographically inclusive, like the hackathons hosted by the Meera Kaul Foundation that focus on increased representation of women in the STEM fields. Whatever the form it’s packaged in, the hackathon is ultimately a celebration of code, and an excuse for techies to get together and geek out in an environment resembling a cross between a college LAN party and a sleepover while still creating something productive (or at least interesting.) Beginners who are interested in the idea but aren’t sure where to start might want to check out CodeDay, a regular event held in cities throughout the United States that welcomes newcomers in all different fields.
I mean, I bet you spent 95 percent of your energy thinking “code, code, code” like the rest of us, no? But the thing is, the pitch matters the same way that first impressions matter. And you have to quit pitching to coders if you want to get good because coders aren’t your only audience. The people listening to your pitch are far more likely to think like venture capitalists than coders. They’re ideas people, you know? So, what’s my advice? Pitch like you’re pitching to VCs. Make sure they know why your idea matters, that that idea is well formulated, and then finally, make sure they know why you are the right person to be pitching the idea. Get it?
The steps go something like this:
1. Explain away the “So what?” No really, at a hackathon as in life, what matters most is that your idea matters, and I shouldn’t have to figure out why. I shouldn’t have to weave the pieces together, pull some Sherlock Holmes “Ah-haaa, there’s the little bugger” when trying to discern the import of your idea. Instead, you need to start your pitch with a description of the broader implications of your idea.
2. And don’t just start with the broader implications: hit me in the face with them. Again, really. Make my brain explode. Let’s say you convince me you’ve got an app to cure cancer, and you do so by showing me rather than telling me how that will happen. See how all that follows matters so much less, as long as I am already in your pocket, convinced you are about to cure cancer with an app? Show me, don’t tell me, what you are about to do, and make sure I wake up with a black eye.
3. Be tight, concise, and meaning-filled all the way through. Because that’s what VCs want and that’s what the judges want. Pretend you are asking Jeff Bezos for a million dollars to launch the for profit venture of your dreams. Are you going to stammer? Are you going to play “look how likeable I am”? Or are you going to kill it with your confidence and look-at-me-I’ve-explored-
4. Don’t be afraid to use anecdotes and ethnographic vignettes, narrative story, and emotional hooks. Get to the heart of why your idea matters and find an emotionally impactful way to share that. Hook with the heartstrings then reel ’em in.
5. And finally, tell them why you? Maybe I buy the importance of your idea. And I buy your effective presentation skills. But let’s say three teams came out with the same idea for P2P rideshare services at more or less the same time (and yeah, I mean like the Lyft and Uber and Sidecar dudes all did): Why do I like you with your idea better than somebody else with your idea? How do you convince me that I want you and your idea in tandem? This is how you can knock your pitch out of the park.
Let’s look at why we need more women & diversity focused hackathons.
1. Shines a Light on Untapped Creative Resources Problem solving is the name of the game in the tech industry. Having the ability to find creative solutions to everyday problems is what it is all about. But, it has been overlooking some of the most creative people in our entire society; women and people of color. Popular opinion has shown that the creativity of communities of color is an untapped resource and something the tech industry needs to recognize. They also need to recognize that women bring the fire when it comes to problem solving. Being known best for their ability to multi-task and dig into the heart of a problem in order to find the best solution, women are essential to the growth of any organization. Hackathons provide both demographics with the opportunity they need to shine.
2. Fosters Teamwork It takes teamwork to truly produce something worth any real-world value in the tech industry. When people come together in order to solve a single problem they are no longer individuals, they quickly become a team. Through hackathons, they are able to work with some of the most brilliant minds in the game in order to positively impact the rest of the world through the use of technology. Women and diversity focused hackathons bring women together with other like-minded women, allows cultural connections across the board, and inspires organizations to support the changes needed to further the industry.
3. Produces Self-Confidence In order to succeed at anything you must first have the skills needed to get the job done. This is where hackathons can have the biggest impact on both women and people of color. For those interested in the tech industry, whether you are new to the field or an expert coder, hackathons will challenge you. Women and diversity focused hackathons tackle one of the biggest challenges we face today, bridging the gap between differentiating ourselves as individuals while satisfying our desire to belong to a group who appreciates us. Creativity, teamwork, and confidence is what has made the tech industry one of the most successful industries of all time.
Creating more hackathons that are women and diversity focused will ensure that it stays that way.
- Find your team ahead of time – If you and your team mates have some extra time to get to know each other and brainstorm together, that will save you a lot of time the day of the event.
- Brainstorm strategically – Mind maps are an excellent way to corral your ideas into potential projects, and if you keep your focus on one or two main problems you’d like to solve, you’re more likely to come up with a workable solution.
- Don’t get too grandiose – You have to have at least some part of the hack working when it comes time for presentation, so you don’t want to dream too big. This is one instance when a time restriction will help you if you let it. Stay focused on what you can actually achieve in the time you have.
- Make a plan – spend some front-loaded time making a plan. Sketching out what your goals are and how you think you’ll achieve them will give you guideposts along the way as your project develops.
- Be adaptable -But even if you have a plan, you can’t stay married to it. Be willing to pivot if the idea needs working over or if the tech capabilities aren’t what you expected as you go through trial and error.
- Be clear on who’s doing what – It’s helpful to for each person to be clear on what their task list is, but be willing to help each other out. You should all be working towards the same goal. Teamwork is the name of the game here.
- Communicate – If you need help, ask. If something isn’t clear, ask. Have an idea for a solution? Speak up. Have a concern about the solution being discussed? Share with the group. The team who communicates clearly will have a leg up on others who don’t.
- Don’t skimp on presenting – The best idea in the world won’t get any attention if no one understands what it is, what it does or who should care. Take some time to plan what you’ll say and how the demo will proceed. Even better, have a teammate who focuses on sharing & fine tuning the message & presentation.
- Have a workable demo – Only working demos are eligible for prizes, so if that’s a priority to you, make sure you have something that shows at least part of what your project is intended to do.
- Don’t forget to have fun! – Amid all the stress or pressure you might feel, don’t forget to have a great time. Yes, it would be awesome if something world-changing (and/or bank account changing) comes out of it, but you can’t get too wrapped up in the outcome. See the hackathon as an opportunity to collaborate, practice your skills and to connect with others who want to use technology to change the world!
I’ve assembled this resource list to help you have the best experience possible. I’ll continue to update it with new links often, so check back!
For learning before the hackathon
- Girl Develop It
- Code Academy
- Excercism.io – download and solve problems in nearly 30 programming languages
- Tools for Open Source
Articles about hackathons
- WTF is a hackathon?
- Hackathons are for beginners
- A Brief History of Hackathons
- 14 Tips on How to Crush a Hackathon
- How you can prepare for a hackathon
- The 8 Kinds of Projects You Meet at a Hackathon
- Hackathon-ing as a Non-Developer
- How to Present a Successful Demo
- Your First Hackathon
- Top 10 Ways to Ruin Your Hack
- What Do Women Want at Hackathons? NASA Has a List.
- Selling Out and the Death of Hacker Culture
- How to Win any Hackathon – and Why They’re Important
Other Articles of Interest
- You Can Already Code – You Just Don’t Know It Yet
- The problem with a technology revolution designed primarily for men
- Patriarchy Hurts Everybody.
- What Do Women Want At Hackathons? NASA Has a List.
Brainstorming & PlanningEven though a lot of these use the word “startup” the tools are also useful for planning out a project for a hackathon. Not every hackathon project has to be a good business idea, but the brainstorming tools can be helpful.
- The One Tool Startups Need to Brainstorm, Test and Win
- A Simple Template to Build Your Startups Brand Foundation
- How Mind Mapping Can Help You Organize Your Thoughts
Design & Description
- How to Craft an Irresistible Product Description – useful for figuring out how to describe what your project does quickly which is also useful in presentation
- Canva Design School – tutorials for designs for non-designers
- CodePen – Front End Web Design; get feedback, test for bugs, find example designs