How To Win A Hackathon

03.12.15
Screenshots of the app's prototype

Screenshots of the app’s prototype

As youth of color today, we are not expected to achieve greatness. That’s how Kalimah Priforce, the Co-Founder and CEO of Qeyno Labs, started off last month’s My Brother’s Keeper Hackathon in Oakland, CA. Yet, here I was, in a room full of professionals and young people of color, ready to build apps for social change over the next three days.

I had never attended a hackathon before. I had imagined a bunch of experienced, and mostly white, programmers and designers building Instagram over a weekend. To my surprise, the attendees were people like me: young people with not too much tech experience and who too often aren’t expected to shine.

Going into this competition, I wished I had had more guidance from somebody my age. So I am sharing these seven tips to help you win your next hackathon. Following these important steps helped my team and me win first place with our app, MyStudyBuddy.

1- Buck up and pitch.

At first, I was reluctant to get up on stage and share my idea in front of dozens of people. It’s not because I didn’t feel prepared. Rather, I didn’t feel confident that my app could win. Then I asked myself: “So what?” The whole point of a hackathon is to challenge yourself. Why participate if you aren’t going to push yourself? Suck it up and just do it. You will most likely do better than you think.

2- Sell your idea. Find the right team.

No one expects you to know how everything works. That’s why we build teams! All the people at the hackathon want to use their skills to support you. So sell them on why your idea is awesome and why your team is the one they should join.  Also, make sure you cover all areas of expertise. Find at least a developer, a designer, a project manager and a business person. Keep your team small and efficient. Too many people can lead to a longer decision-making process and, let’s be honest, you don’t have time for that.

3- Simplify, simplify, simplify. 

This is the hardest part: making your idea as simple as possible. It might feel counterintuitive at first, but I’ve learned that less is more. It’s difficult to stick to one idea when you begin to explore all the possibilities that could stem from it. Clearly define the problem you are trying to solve. For MyStudyBuddy, we wanted to help community college students succeed in school, even with a busy schedule. Talk in circles, brainstorm, draw on your white board and create an easy app that can do exactly what you want it to do.

4- Do your research.

By the end of our brainstorm, we had several solutions to our initial problem. Finding the best one was going to take extra input, and that’s where research comes in. Market and user research are the most important parts of building an app. If you don’t know your audience, then you won’t know the best way to build your app. We were lucky enough to be surrounded by the audience we wanted to target, so we built an online survey and walked around, laptop in hand, getting people to answer a few questions. Even if your audience isn’t readily available, try your best to find as much information as possible. The data you’re looking for might even be available online. In our case, we just had to look for government data about community colleges.

5 – Work smart, not hard.

Relax. If you prepare in the right ways, your research and sketches will do the work for you. We didn’t make a full website or app, we built a functioning prototype to show how the app would function. It was fast and easy to build and it gave us extra time to test the app, do more research and practice our presentation.

6 – Present like a boss.

Here goes that confidence thing again! If you made it this far, then you obviously have an idea worth investing in. You know all your material, and you know why your app is important. So go up there and slay your competition! Practice as much as possible. Make sure you slides are sleek and simple and write down some notes. If you can, pitch to people outside of your team and get a fresh pair of ears.

7- Buy yourself ice cream. You’ve made it this far.

Whether you win or lose, honestly, a hackathon is about building confidence, proving to yourself that you’ve got what it takes, and learning from everyone who participated. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible either. At the My Brother’s Keeper Hackathon, I walked away with a worthy experience and more proof that young people of color can succeed.

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