Tips for winning hackathons

I’ve organized more hackathons than I can count. Here’s a list of tips for contestants:

  1. Read and understand the hackathon’s official rules before the event. Ask questions if needed.
  2. Understand the judging criteria. Devote attention to all judging criteria, not just one criterion in particular.
  3. Don’t have AV problems. At the beginning of the event, ask how presentations will be made. If you’ll be presenting from your own laptop, test it out on the venue’s projector early on. Bring all necessary video converters. Don’t expect the venue to have what you need. If you’ll be presenting from a mobile phone, find out if you’ll use an overhead projector or a Miracast receiver. Test things before you get fully focused on building your entry.
  4. Android presentations should not use the ARM emulator from Google. It’s too slow. Use Genymotion instead. Better yet, deploy right to your phone and present using a Miracast receiver. Bring your own receiver in case the venue’s does not work.
  5. Don’t begin with a long PowerPoint presentation. Dive right in and show your app. I’ve seen too many presenters run out of time before actually showing their entry.
  6. Consider using an opening line which clearly tells the judges and audience what your app does.  For example, “Contoso saves money on healthcare by making providers compete for your business.” Consider landing that point in a closing statement too.
  7. A more advanced technique is to start telling a story to appeal to judges on an emotional level. Your story should lead to a problem, and then explain how your hackathon entry solves that problem. All too often this technique fails though, because many developers aren’t good storytellers and they run out of time to show their entry.
  8. Make sure judges can summarize your app in one sentence. When deliberating, judges will remind each other about each entry. Don’t make a judge search through notes to remember your entry.
  9. Clearly state who your intended user is. If the hackathon has an entrepreneurial feel to it, this will give judges an idea of your total addressable market.
  10. Land your most important points early. Don’t wait until the end. You might forget, or run out of time.
  11. Know who the judges are, and what’s important to them. If one judge is a designer, emphasize your entry’s beautiful design. Certainly don’t disparage something which is important to a judge if you want to win them over.
  12. Don’t spend time explaining what you couldn’t accomplish. I’ve heard presenters list everything they attempted to do, but failed. Focus on what you built, not on what failed.
  13. If you’re entering a specific category, such as Best Use of the Fabrikam API, make sure you explicitly state how you use their API. I’ve seen too many presentations which forget to mention how they use a particular technology.
  14. When using a handheld microphone, keep it right in front of your mouth. Don’t hold it at chest level.  A rule of thumb, no pun intended, is to keep the microphone a distance of one thumb’s length away from your mouth.
  15. Pretend that you’re only presenting to someone in the very back of the room. This ensures that you’re loud enough for all to hear.
  16. If the hackathon rules state that only work accomplished during the event is eligible, don’t enter work you’ve previously done. I’ve seen people present apps they did absolutely no work on during the hackathon.
  17. Don’t make JPEGs and pretend it’s a real app. I’ve seen this happen.
  18. Don’t lie and say you used a particular technology when you didn’t. I’ve seen this happen.
  19. Be prepared to answer any questions about the technologies you used. I’ve seen people present apps they did not build. When questioned about the simplest details, they could not answer.
  20. Don’t waste time building features you intend for a version down the road. Have a singular focus on accomplishing what you intend to present.
  21. In the days before the event, watch hackathon presentations on YouTube. You’ll get a feel of what a good presentation looks like.

Have tips of your own? Contact me if you want me to list them here, and I’ll attribute them to you.  Or, you can be anonymous if you like.