Few gatherings capture the spirit of disruption, innovation, all-night coding, and collaboration like a hackathon. They’re what come to mind when the layperson imagines what it’s like to work at a startup. But hackathons are also frequently misunderstood. There’s a reason Popular Mechanics dubbed the The Stupid Hackathon the world’s only “honest one.”
Too many budding entrepreneurs regard hackathons as an opportunity to self-promote or find traction for their big ideas. Yet, the whole point of hackathons is to challenge orthodoxy by using unconventional ideas and methods and spur true innovation.
Here are a few tips for surviving and thriving at a hackathon:
Check your ego at the door
You’re not doing it right if you make it about yourself. Hackathons are fundamentally about teamwork, so you’ll do best if you park your ego. Respect your skills and your limitations as well as those of others at the event.
While the general rule of thumb is that you should have at least a little proficiency in coding to be a valuable resource, don’t be a snob about non-coders; they can contribute greatly too because hackathons demand a diversity of skills, not just coding. For example, teams that form at hackathons always covet attendees who can bring some design expertise to the table, and anyone with UX experience is a boon to any team.
The point is, people are happy to help, especially when you work in teams, and pretending you’re something you’re not is never productive.
Don’t come in with a plan
It’s good to come to a hackathon with a ton of ideas. But having an agenda also runs contrary to the spirit of hackathons, where plans, teams, and ideas form spontaneously. When inspiration or serendipitous connections happen, it’s important to go with them. Hackathons exist for practically every imaginable field; some are extremely lighthearted, while others are designed to grapple with serious or controversial issues. The one thing that unites them all is the importance of keeping an open mind about the solutions proposed by people with different sets of expertise.
This spontaneity often spells imperfection in terms of what’s produced at hackathons, but that’s okay and even healthy. Letting go of expectations of perfection can be freeing. In fact, so it’s really important to embrace this notion as you project-manage a team or solo project from start to finish in 24 hours.
Remember, it’s supposed to be fun
While you want to create a great product, don’t take the hackathon too seriously. If you do, that defeats the purpose. For example, a lot of problems people solve at these events might seem irrelevant, but a big benefit of hackathons is that they’re not supposed to feel like work in the same way as your day job. The fun, light-hearted environment is exactly what yields the most exciting innovations. Don’t walk into a hackathon with a ream of business cards and an agenda — that will keep you from being open to new ideas and new modes of thinking. Be flexible!
You can get all kinds of benefits out of hackathons. What better way, in fact, to meet people and close gaps in your knowledge as well as gain exposure to new approaches to process and what it takes to build something worthwhile. However, a lot of aspiring founders approach a hackathon as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. By keeping an open mind and keeping your agenda to yourself, you’ll open new doors, forge new connections, and hone new skills.
Basil Shikin is VP of Engineering at AppLovin, a marketing platform that provides automation and analytics for brands. Before AppLovin, he was the senior software engineer at DeviceAnywhere, a software engineer at gBox and Lanit-Tercom and a developer at SPb Forestry Research Institute.