10 Tips to Win your Next Hackathon

written by Marie February 20, 2017

tips hackathon

Hello, everyone!

In 2016, I participated in my first hackathon ever. When I moved to Montreal, I discovered a beautiful community around technology where events happen every month. You might wonder what is a hackathon? Well, it is an event that typically lasts a day or two and brings together programmers to work and deliver a complete project during the event. If can be with software or hardware. It has nothing to do with hacking your computer.

I learned a lot from all these hackathons. SlackathonMTL was especially a bigger challenge for me and my team. This is where I learned the most about what needs to be done before and during a hackathon so that it is a successful event for all team members. I will let you read the article if you want to know all the details.

Tips to win a hackathon

Before the event

1. Prepare your Trello or PowerPoint in advance
Sometimes it is possible to prepare a few things before the event, without writing any line of code, of course! When it is possible, organize and assign each task to a member of the team. To do this, you can use a software like Trello. I already participated in a hackathon that had a marketing side: preparing a template for a PowerPoint could have been very useful that day! This step is optional. But that will give you a very good lead over the other teams. When the time comes, you will save a lot of time. Also, if you planned in advance, each person can do a bit of research in order to know or get an idea on how to do the tasks they will have to do (see next point!)


2. Find out in advance what technologies you will use
If you do this step, it can save you once again many hours of trial and error! This is what can make you win and take one step further in the accomplishment of your application. Often, during a hackathon, we choose technologies that we do not yet fully master – or not at all. It’s perfect because it is an amazing opportunity to learn something new, but it’s even better if you begin to learn the basics of the programming language a couple days before.


3. Install your work environment
Lately, I coded in nodejs and I realized during the event that my NPM was misconfigured. I lost at least a good 2 hours to run NPM to be able to install the dependencies of my project properly … Do not make the same mistake!


4. Make a brainstorm and find an idea
In my last hackathon, the teams that have applied this tip are the ones that have been ranked among the best. Finding a revolutionary idea before the fateful day is perhaps the most important advice of this list. I lost MANY hours during my hackathons to look for an idea. On the other hand, at certain events, sponsors are present and can propose challenges with a prize to win. You may change your mind about participating in this type of contest, but at least you will always have an alternative idea.


5. Take everything you need to survive 24 hours
When I go to an event, I bring everything: pillow, blanket, a bottle of water and thermos for coffee as well as some snacks. Even though I never sleep, I am always very happy to have brought these objects, because I am comfortable during the night. Also, sometimes showers are available. You can then take a towel and other necessities. I also always bring several t-shirts, because when you stay awake for 24 hours to code, it’s good. Also, the events actually last much longer than 24 hours, as after the coding time it sometimes it takes up to 8 hours until the judge’s presentations, the closing ceremony and the announcement of the winners. My friend Kim wrote a complete list of what to bring to a hackathon, you should definitely check it out!


tips hackathon

We are working hard

During the hackathon

6. Set small and achievable goals 
It’s very dangerous to aim too high, you could end up with an application that is not functional at all. Set very small goals. It is easier to target a small and functional product and then work to add more features. At the beginning of an event, and especially during a brainstorm, ideas can go very far and be complex. However, once the brainstorm is finished, it is important to remember that you only have 24 hours. Be realistic! You should also be aware that as time goes on, you get more and more tired. Small bugs that would usually take you 10 minutes can take 1 hour when you have been coding for 12 hours.


7. Do a lot of meetings
It is essential to be aware of the progress of the members of your team. You can rely on meal times to make these meetings, and a little more if needed. For a hackathon that starts around 9 am, good meeting hours would be: 12 pm, 2 pm, 6 pm, midnight, 3 am, 6 am, 8 am. This makes it possible to reevaluate the tasks and objectives of your application when problems come up. You will be able to decide the remaining tasks according to the time you have left since it is always necessary to provide a functional application. Also, at each meeting, set a list of tasks that should be completed before your next meeting. This is the secret in order to achieve and deliver a finished product.


8. Use GitHub for version control of your code 
This may seem obvious to some people, but I still saw people being able to do a hackathon without git! If you are tired and make a mistake in your code, git will make it easier to go back and fix it. Keep in mind that you can never do too many commits! In my last hackathon, we spent 6 hours without doing any commits. This was a big mistake that we regretted at the end when we finished with an app full of bugs because of a bad manipulation of the commits! 😉


9. Take breaks & enjoy workshops for networking
A big advantage to participating in hackathons is the opportunity to learn new technologies and meet new people. To do this, it is very important to take breaks, talk to the teams around you and participate in the workshops organized! You should take some time to go talk to the sponsors of the event. You’ll get some swag and network at the same time.


10. Maintain positive energy in team
It is important that all team members are in a good mood at all times. Everyone will be very, very tired at the end of the event. It’s part of the joys of doing a hackathon. On the other hand, we must respect this fatigue and not dispute uselessly with our friends. If the emotions are running high, a group hug will solve all your problems (I speak from experience)!

tips hackathon


That’s it!

Do you think I left anything out? Write it in the comments section!

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Hunter February 20, 2017 - 2:06 pm

I’d add that you should probably bring some healthy food and a good water bottle. Seems all the Hackathons I go to end up costing my health a bit.

Marie February 22, 2017 - 10:49 pm

I see where you come from. I went to a couple hackathons where the food was not very good – or even to some where the beverages were not provided lol.

I didn’t include it because most of the time the food is OK/very good and I end up regretting I brought the food because going to an hackathon in public transportations is already a pain hahaha ! 🙂

Rafa Oliveira February 21, 2017 - 6:33 pm

Great post, Marie, keep up the good work, I’ve become a fan of your blog 🙂

Marie February 22, 2017 - 10:47 pm

Aww thank you so much! I’m very glad you enjoy reading my blog! Thanks for the comment also!

Rafa Oliveira February 21, 2017 - 6:37 pm

Great post, Marie! Keep up the good work, I’ve become a fan of your blog =)

Marie February 25, 2017 - 10:14 pm

Thank you! I’m glad you liked it! 🙂

Mohd Naved Alam February 21, 2017 - 9:53 pm

Hi. Great article. I have a question. I have read many times thus phrase “basics of programming language”. What does it mean actually? How much is the “basics of programming language”?

Marie February 28, 2017 - 2:55 pm

For me, it means that you know a bit the syntax of the language and basics things : how to print, how to change colors, how to do a loop, etc.

Mathieu February 26, 2017 - 6:53 pm

Another thing I’d add: Spend as much time as possible on the look of your app. A lot of teams I saw spent a LOT of time on the UI of the app so it already looks like a finished product.

Marie February 28, 2017 - 2:54 pm

Oh, I love this one! You’re absolutely right – first impression is everything!

Thank you!

Audrey February 27, 2017 - 5:36 am

Great tips. I am considering going for a hackathon and will definitely implement these !

Marie February 28, 2017 - 2:54 pm

Thank you! I’m sure your hackathon will be a success 🙂

Parikshit February 28, 2017 - 2:41 pm

Not doing number 4 has cost me lots of time at hackathons. But the thing with 4 is that even if you have an idea you can lose a lot of time trying to convince your team that the idea is good.

Marie February 28, 2017 - 3:00 pm

In number 4, my advice is to go to the event with some ideas in mind. I don’t understand how this has cost you time in a hackathon? The objective is to have ideas before so you don’t loose to much time during the event if no ones have any idea what they want to do.

Thank you for the comment 🙂

Ria March 20, 2017 - 6:37 pm

After reading your latest internship blog and this one, now I’m officially a fan of you!
I’m going to Amy first hackathon next month and I’m sure this blog and the list will be helpful.
I’m so happy for your accomplishment and even happier that you put all these experiences in words and post them on your lovely blog!
I have no idea what I need to do in the hackathon yet, so I am just trying to build some maybe relevant skills beforehand. I’m learning basic Linux commands, HTML/CSS, JavaScript, and started to learn about github today.

Wish you all the best and keep posting interesting stuff!

aka A girl student from about a week ago 🙂

Marie April 5, 2017 - 1:17 pm

Aww thank you so much for you sweet comments! 🙂 It’s amazing that you did all that stuff to get prepared before your hackathon! When is it in April? 🙂 Good luck! Let me know how it went for you!

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Tomal May 4, 2017 - 11:50 pm

Your web site so beautiful& also you so cute.i read your article regularly

Marie May 13, 2017 - 10:49 pm

I’m glad you like my posts, Tomal!

Lola May 10, 2017 - 3:22 am

I am so scared to join a hackaton! But this REALLY helps! Now I know what to do to be less scared about it 😛 Thank you soooo much!

Marie May 13, 2017 - 10:47 pm

Hi Lola! Don’t be afraid, you’ll be just fine at your first hackathon! 🙂 People are all very friendly and go there to have fun (for the most part)! So just close your eyes, and DO IT! 🙂 Let me know if you want to talk more about what scares you the most, I would be happy to help. xxx
PS: I am thinking of writing a post about being scared of attending these events. Hope it can helps others like you. You’re not alone!

Jany Mai May 28, 2017 - 3:43 am

What did you do in hackaton? How you can make a team? The idea of Hackaton from your side or from the organization.

Marie June 10, 2017 - 11:36 am

Hi! A lot of projects I did in hackathons are described in the category Events – Hackathons. There, you will find a post for some hackathons I attended and a description of the project I worked on! To create a team, I mostly just went with my friends from University, but most hackathons have a period of time allocated for people to find teams. I would say though that I try to choose friends with whom I have skills that complete each others – and I get in a team with people that have different knowledge than me so I can learn even more during the event!


David September 22, 2018 - 6:01 pm

Thanks for this, this was quite helpful.

Marie October 17, 2018 - 11:28 pm

Hello David,
I’m glad you found the post useful! Thank you for your comment! 🙂

Abhi November 6, 2018 - 11:31 am

Hi Marie,

Could you provide any tips to solve the problem statement that was given on spot and complete the task with in 12 hrs of time limit ?

I will be much helpful and thankful towards your great response as you always give.

Marie November 10, 2018 - 9:23 pm

Hello Abhi,
I don’t have any magic recipe for such a problem, but I would say doing a brainstorm with your team first would be my choice. Write down as many ideas on a whiteboard if you have one and try to come up with something awesome!
Good luck!


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