3 Tips for Dominating Hackathons

Love a good programming challenge? Then hackathons just might be your Disneyland.

Hackathons are organized in a variety of styles and methods, but one thing remains the same: Only the most talented professionals with the best problem-solving skills come out on top.

Hackathons are a great way to empower professionals to challenge themselves to think outside the box and achieve great heights in a limited amount of time. And usually there’s a prize involved.

Here at HackerRank, we host online hackathons called CodeSprints that allow coders to show companies looking for tech talent just what they can do by completing a handful of challenges within 24 hours. In excitement of our upcoming Spring Sprint on March 14th, which you can sign up for the hackathon here, we decided to interview a hackathon lover to help give folks a competitive edge.

Check out these crucial tips from Shutterstock engineer Dave Kozma who completely dominated one of Shutterstock’s internal company hackathon by developing an in-browser video editor, which is live on Shutterstock’s experimental Labs page now.

As an expert in hacking and tackling challenging problems, Kozma allowed us to pick his brain on how other developers can dominate an upcoming hackathon. Here’s how Kozma dominated a hackathon:

1. Make a Plan

Never underestimate the power of a solid road map. Being able to draw out and list exactly what you need to get done gives you clear direction. “Write down a top-level overview of tasks you need to complete and cross things off the list as you finish them,” he says. “It sounds simple, but it makes it easier for you to remember what you have to do during the late-night hours, and it lets you gauge where you are in the project, allowing you to drop less-important tasks if you see that you’re falling behind.”

2. Tackle One Thing at a Time 

Setting a time limit for yourself on individual features is another crucial means to success at hackathons. It can be tempting to get fixated on one aspect of the challenge. 

But, after planning, “I focus on one thing at a time, and timebox my tasks so that I don’t spend too much time on one feature,” Kozma says. “If I have trouble making something work, I’ll try to work on something else and come back to it (preferably after a power nap if it’s late).” 

3. If there’s a Demo Portion, Don’t Underestimate the Presentation Aspect

Some hackathons aren’t all about coding. Being able to clearly present and communicate your results is crucial as well. “I think the biggest mistake is forgetting how important the presentation aspect is. You can create the coolest thing in the world, however if you don’t explain the benefits in a way that your audience understands, it won’t matter,” he says.

Bonus Tip for Team Challenges:

Establish a consistent feedback funnel between you and your team. Make sure everyone is clear on their piece of the project and that you have a constant feedback loop.

“Talk to your designer so you can decide on the most important aspects of the project. I was lucky to work with a talented designer and UX researcher, and I feel that I wouldn’t have focused on the right things without their input,” he says.


Ready to dig in and see if you can dominate a hackathon?


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