April 09, 2020

Hackathons are only for nerds and 4 other myths

By Jae Jensen

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Find out what a hackathon is, who can participate and why it might be the most important weekend of your life.

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With around half of humanity in some form of lockdown over the coronavirus, you may be at home running out of things to do. While scrolling Facebook, something catches your eye… an invite to an online hackathon. But what is a hackathon?

The word comes from “hacking marathon” and brings a lot of images to mind: people in hoodies and headphones furiously coding, hyped up on caffeine, shouting. A hackathon is an intense brainstorming event where people with different skills get together, exchange ideas, form teams around the best ideas and develop working prototypes over the course of 48 hours.

With thelargest hackathon evertaking place online April 9 to 12 to create solutions for the current pandemic, many people around the globe will participate in their first hackathon. Some hackathon veterans have come together to give you the scoop on what to expect.

Myth #1:They’re only for “nerds”

It’s the word hack that probably scares away a lot of humanities types. But don’t be afraid. “I’m not technical, I don’t know how to code. If there’s something I know, it’s how to communicate and sell something,” explains Miguel, a marketplace manager at software company Pipedrive. Miguel tells that in his experience in four different hackathons, including Hack the Crisis Estonia, they all boil down to convincing people, “You could be a good developer or product manager, but there’s always a part of the pitch that I can help with.”

Becky, a London-based marketing manager for the same company, says that it’s a misconception that people working in marketing just come up with fluff, “Product design is about creating solutions to problems customers have. Marketing is no different. An idea that can solve a customer’s pain point, if you can tell the story, is a big help.” She believes a background in marketing is great to contribute because “you’re able to better articulate the story your team is working on.”

Myth #2: You need an idea

With most hackathons, you can submit ideas leading up to the event or you can come without an idea and join someone else’s team. Depending on the hackathon, you can also build an idea from scratch or develop an existing solution further. If you come without an idea, don’t shy away from joining a team and offering up your skills.

“Just do it. Contribute critical thinking. Don’t be afraid. If you don’t know something, Google it,” advises Miguel. Becky recommends reaching out to mentors, “Say ‘Hi, I’m looking for something to do, these are my skills’ and give some background about yourself. This helps with visibility.”

Myth #3: You have to come with a team

Joining solo will not prevent you from proposing an idea or finding a team. Andris, a space tech researcher with Aalto University and the University of Tartu, warns, “I’ve seen inexperienced people wanting to leave or leaving if their idea doesn’t attract enough people. That’s a huge mistake. Don’t go away, find another team. Don’t take it personally.” Take advantage of mentors to help you connect with like-minded people and find teams in need of your skills. Andris adds, “You can get access to really great people in their fields. Otherwise busy people are at your disposal for the weekend.”

When it comes to online networking, Becky, whose first team was split between London and Lisbon, tells “It was difficult being in a remote location to walk up to people and join teams. Make yourself visible. If it’s your idea, reach out to people in the beginning with different backgrounds to get good coverage.” Utilize online tools like Zoom, Slack, and collaboration tool Miro to keep team members in the loop and feeling included.

Myth #4: They’re super serious and you won’t sleep

Will your million-dollar business idea come out of your next hackathon? Maybe. Does your team have the potential to solve serious problems in the world? Definitely. But this doesn’t mean hackathons are all nose-to-the-grindstone. “If it’s not fun, it’s not worth it,” says Andris. Miguel agrees, saying, “You don’t need to destroy yourself for a hackathon. If you need a shower and a good night’s sleep to deliver something good, then do it.”

The key is to establish early on in the event what your team wants to realistically achieve by the end, then break that down into stages requiring different skillsets. “You don’t have to work all the time. You can do parts of your day job in between if needed. Be open at the start with your team about how much you can participate,” tells Becky. The recommended team size is between four to 12 people, so having a larger team also helps distribute the workload.

Myth #5: They’re a waste of time and the ideas don’t go anywhere

Setting expectations going into the hackathon helps keep the event productive. “You have to be realistic,” explains Becky, and perhaps instead of creating an entirely new product, “come up with a focused solution that really answers a problem and focus your efforts there.”

Andris approaches hackathons with a healthy scepticism in regards to his field, “They’re amazing events for bouncing ideas, networking, prototyping,” but on the other hand, “you can’t develop space tech over a weekend. You can prototype something, but you have to demonstrate technology in space. But it’s still fun.” With some hackathons offering sponsorships, mentorships and exposure, they provide unique opportunities and the right connections to get your idea off the ground.

If you have the motivation to make an impact, check out The Global Hack, 9-12 April. Make history and partake in the biggest hackathon ever held. Over 5,000 ideas have already been gathered in the Hack the Crisis movement with more to come.