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Finding team members and an idea at a hackathon

You have chosen a hackathon (discussed in a previous post), your application to attend was accepted (usually only turned down because the venue is full), now what do you do? If they are organized (some are not) the people running the event will have a web page containing a list of possible problems/challenges, possible sources of data, judging criteria and other information; read this several times. It is helpful to turn up on the days with several possible project ideas, so keep you mind open in the weeks/days before the event to workable ideas. Depending how keen you are you might also search the Internet for information that could help.

Most events have a rule that all coding must be done on the day, i.e., no turning up on the day with a half finished App.

So you arrive at the venue and sign in, what next? You need team members (assuming you have not formed team beforehand). Yes, you are usually allowed to work on your own but why bother attending if you plan to do this, you might just as well work from home and just turn up to present at the end.

My choice of possible team members is driven by my reason for attending hackathons, I enjoy building software systems. So I look for other developers and perhaps a subject domain expert for advice. My social mingling gets straight to the point, after saying hello I ask the person in front of me what language they like to code in, maybe 20% give a reply that shows they are a developer.

If you reason for attending is to teach then there will be people who are “there to learn”, if you like listening to other people rabbit on about their ideas then there will be “ideas people” and if you don’t get enough of non-technical managers during the week you will probably have first pick of those present. In theory everybody should want a “designer” on their team, in practice people who cannot code but think they can do “something” say they are “designers”.

If you are looking to build something I recommend avoiding anybody who cannot code (or build hardware if at a hardware hack) like the plague. These people soak up a huge amount of discussion time and when it comes down to it do not contribute much towards what is being built (I have seen non-developers make a crucial contribution to a team, but then monkeys will eventually type Shakespeare). Of course, outside of a hackathon context non-developers are needed.

I recommend keeping your team small, no more than four people. Depending on what you are building it may not be possible to split the work between more than two people (I have won several times in a team of two), or perhaps three. If you find yourself in a group of more than four I suggest that you agree to kick around ideas together and then split into smaller teams, it is unlikely that everybody will be interested in working on the same idea.

You will need an idea for what to build. Don’t be shy about sharing your ideas and asking other people what their ideas are. This is where letting things tick over in your mind before the event helps; you will probably have a couple of ideas to start things off.

Everybody thinks their own ideas are great and that other people at the hackathon will steal them if they can. In practice convincing other people that your idea is worth their time is hard work; be prepared to sell your idea to a group of people who are as skeptical, but willing to go for it, as you are.

I have never seen it written down, but there is a view that what you build has to have something unique about it, at least if you want to be win in some category. Be prepared to feel very deflated when somebody points you at a site implementing exactly what you are proposing, only much better; this happens to me on a regular basis.

So you are part of a team, have some ideas and are all sitting around a table plugging in your laptops. You will probably spend several more hours talking things through and maybe searching the internet. You might still be talking 10 hours later (only happened to me once before).

At a hackathon you are always free to get up and leave your team. Of course as time goes by other teams are more likely to have jelled and be less inclined to accept a new member. If things are really going nowhere, you can always go home.

To be continued…

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