Lessons learnt after 3 consecutive weeks of hackathons

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I had only been to one hackathon before. I had never had so much Redbull and junk food in my life. I had also never brainstormed and ideated so much. I slept for 12 hours yesterday after completing my 3rd hackathon. Now I’m finally awake to reflect on the past three weeks and share my thoughts with you.

First Week

The first hackathon was in-house. It was held by my coding bootcamp — Horizons School of Technology. 150 students, who had just gone through 2 months of learning, were given 24 hours to produce an application. I enjoyed it a lot because we were not given any constraints. My teammates and I just built whatever we felt was fun. That turned out to be an AR brick breaker remake. Here’s our demo video:


I got to play with interesting libraries like tracking.js and three.js. I also learnt to do git reset HEAD --hard and resolve merge conflicts the painful way. I am happy we pulled it off despite how ambitious the project seemed. I learnt to appreciate how awesome the JavaScript community is. Whatever idea you come up with, libraries and packages that do the work for you probably already exist. Your role as a hacker is to put the pieces together and finish the product by all means, even if you have to throw in a few !important and position: absolute in your CSS, hardcode your registration system or copy chunks of code off Codepen. Embrace ugly code and poor practices that are working fine and move onto implementing the next feature — the competition lasts 24 hours only and you (probably) won’t have to maintain any of the code afterwards anyway.

Second Week

The second hackathon was Jane Street’s Electronic Trading Challenge. The challenge was to write a bot that makes the most money in a simulated stock market. 5 minutes represented a day. The competition lasted 12 hours. It was as exhausting as a 24-hour hackathon due to the amount of brain power needed. Our team devised sophisticated algorithms that worked in theory, but had no success implementing them in code. To make matter worse, the scores and rankings of each team were shown in real time on a big screen. Coding against the clock and under stress was a new experience to me. At the end, we ranked a disastrous second to last.

After the event, I talked to the winning team. They told me they won with about 10 lines of code. Hence the second lesson was: don’t overthink. Implement simple features that are going to work first, then worry about adding new ones later.

Third Week

The third hackathon was AngelHack Silicon Valley— a fairly renowned yearly event that was also held all around the globe. The winning team in each local AngelHack was invited to HACKcelerator, a 12-week program that helps turn the winning idea into an actual startup. In addition to the grand price, there were a number of sponsored prizes. Teams had to use specific technologies, such as Button’s SDK or Satori’s data, or comply to a specific theme, such as ‘environmental awareness’ or ‘peace’, to be eligible for the individual prizes.

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Our AngelHack project — a tool that allows students to ask questions and give real-time feedback in class

We were pretty disappointed because we didn’t make it into the final round, despite us thinking we had quite a solid product. People say execution is more important than the idea, but apparently it’s the opposite in hackathons — Creativity is more important than technical sophistication. The judges were all experienced investors and developers, it’s almost impossible to impress them technically. Instead, the teams they picked all had creative ideas and applications. The judges didn’t mind if the project was hardcoded (which I was slightly upset about) or if things went wrong in the demo. They were judging ideas more than anything.

I guess another lesson that followed was to do research before a hackathon. Look up the judges, look up the sponsors and ask for advice from past participants, so that when you’re at the hackathon you’ll know what to expect and what to focus on.

The past three weeks were fun, but it’ll probably be a while till I want to join another hackathon.

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