First Hackathon? Here Are 6 Things You Need To Know

Ginny Fahs
3 min readSep 25, 2017
Our hackathon team, CatCallout, created a mobile app that uses geolocation to map incidents of catcalling and street harassment.

Last week I participated in my first hackathon, the Google Mobile Tech Hackathon in San Francisco. You know the genre: find a team, hack away at a project all day and all night, meet some people, eat some snacks. Hackathons are a whirlwind! And they can be a useful format for making major progress in a short amount of time — if you come in with a strategy.

In the days leading up to the Google Mobile Tech Hackathon, I gathered advice from friends, mentors, and fellow Dev Bootcamp alumni. I wanted to use the hackathon to produce something stellar, and I feel grateful to the many people whose words of wisdom allowed our team to do just that. You’ll find their tips and tricks distilled here.

1. Know Your Goals

There are so many good ways to use a hackathon. Are you looking to finally deliver on a project you’ve been dreaming about? Are you looking to learn a new tech stack? Do you just want to network? Are you there to WIN?

A hackathon can help you deliver on any of these objectives — but probably not all of them at once. Crystalizing your goals well before the hackathon begins will help define your prep process, and help you manage your time when you’re there.

2. Build a Team

You’ll have more control over your experience at the hackathon if you come in with a team pre-formed. Some hackathons have Slack channels, Facebook groups, etc. set up prior the event, which can be a great way to find teammates if no one in your personal network plans to participate.

A lot of people form teams when they arrive at a hackathon. That can work (especially if you’re there to network!), but it also means you’ll start out behind those who have their teammates, idea, and tech established in advance.

3. Choose Your Project

Some hackathons have a theme, others are more open-ended. As soon as you sign up for the hackathon, start thinking about what you want to make.

If the hackathon is hosted by a company, brainstorm ways you can incorporate their product. Pay attention to who the judges are, and use their areas of expertise to inform the kind of project you choose to build.

4. It Takes a Week to Prepare (at least!)

Once your team, idea, and goals are solidified, it’s time to get to work! Set aside at least a week to prepare. You’ll use the time differently depending on your goals.

Looking to network? Research who will be attending, and make a list of people you want to seek out. There to win? Create your pitch deck, design assets, and logos — and practice delivering the pitch so you can be suave in the moment. Eager to learn a new tech stack? Dive into tutorials and build some toy projects to familiarize yourself with new languages and frameworks.

Remember, while hacakthon rules dictate that all of the coding has to happen at the event itself, non-coding work can be knocked out in advance.

5. Timebox

Hackathons typically last 24–48 hours, and the time will fly (especially if you want time for meals and sleep!).

Get a general sense of who on your team will work on what, and approximately how long you expect it to take. Timebox tasks, noting when you will “just move on,” even if you can’t get things to work.

Bugs can creep up anywhere — and a hackathon is no exception. Deciding in advance how much time you’ll allow for the different parts of your project, and when you’ll move on to a plan B, will help ensure that you have something to demo come pitch time.

6. Take Care

Hackathons are designed to be hyper-stimulating. They literally lock you in a room, give you a deadline, surround you with snacks, and tell you not to sleep. The environment is intense, but you shouldn’t let it push you past your healthy bounds. Try to eat healthy and in portions you’re used to (it’s a hackathon, not a snackathon!), and make sure you devise a sleep/nap schedule to stick to. Taking care of yourself will boost your morale and productivity, and ultimately, your success.



Ginny Fahs

Tech Fellow @AspenPolicyHub & #MovingForward Executive Director. Ex- @UberEngineering .