5 tips for hackathon newbies

This past weekend, I entered my first hackathon, called FinTechathon: Hack the Financial Industry.

Hackathon Logo

After a whirlwind of activity, with many ups and downs, my team, “Credit Passport”, ended up winning the award for Best Use of Salesforce Technology! I wish I could take credit but as I explain below, the win was all thanks to my teammates, who put together a great pitch and hacked together an impressive solution in less than 48 hours. Those teammates were:

  • Tommy Nakamura
  • Daniel Forbes
  • Matt Williams
  • Johnny Chan
  • Richard Kirsch
  • Joao Veiga
  • Kavita Kalaichelvan
  • Ann Chen

Without further ado, here’s what I learned.

1) There will be people there who are much stronger coders than you

You will be completely outclassed. It will not be a comfortable feeling. I hate sitting back and letting others make the decision and do the work but I just didn’t have enough confidence (in either the technical aspects or the domain of financials) to take the reins. I was clearly the weakest link on my team and felt really frustrated for the first 24 hours or so. Honestly, I considered just giving up and going home because I was very intimidated and didn’t feel like I was contributing much at all.

Then, midway through Saturday in the Friday to Sunday event, I remembered something I read in The Start-Up of You.

“The most important choice of all is who you choose to surround yourself with.”

-Ben Casanocha, Co-Author, The Start-Up of You (Source: Business Insider)

The best way to grow is to put yourself in those weakest link situations. I didn’t pack up and move from Calgary to London because it would be easy. I did it because it was a push outside of my comfort zone. Same as this hackathon. After I came to terms with this I was able to enjoy myself and learn a ton. I messed around with HTML5 canvases, I configured Heroku to host a prototype, I sketched ideas, and I observed my talented teammates.

2) Everyone is so helpful

I’m sure it varies, but I was blown away by how friendly and helpful everyone was. I expected it to be competitive and cutthroat but it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, people were in it to win it, but there was a general feeling of camaraderie over the weekend. I have to especially thank my teammate Matt Williams who, after staying up all night coding, patiently walked me through his work to explain what it did. I even spotted Matt taking the time to sit down with other teams to help them troubleshoot. Everyone wants everyone to succeed.

3) Not just for programmers any more!

Or maybe hackathons were never just for programmers. I just assumed that they were always just a bunch of coders hacking away, but they’re so much more. Observers were welcome at this hackathon (great for checking things out before diving in). Also, we couldn’t have done it without our fantastic team of BizDevs, who put together a concise, impressive pitch deck. Designers were welcome as well, but unfortunately I didn’t come across very many of them.

4) Roll with it

Plans change. Sure, it’s frustrating when code you’ve been working on has to be thrown out due to an incorrect assumption but that’s just part of the experience. It’s important not to get too attached to your ideas or the work you’ve done.

“Don’t get too attached to your original plan, because it’s probably wrong.”

-Paul Graham (Source: The 18 Mistakes that Kill Startups)

5) They treat you well

Not only is there delicious food non-stop, but where else are you going to have in-person api support at your fingertips? There’s no way that I would have wrapped my head around ColoredCoins if we didn’t have Tal from Colu right there to talk us through it. Oh, and did I mention delicious food and snacks?


What’s Next?

I started the weekend feeling frustrated but ended it amazingly motivated and inspired. I’m already planning my next hackathon and my solo projects that I want to do on my own as soon as possible!


Did you learn any other lessons from hackathons? Let me know in the comments below!

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