How to enjoy a hackathon
text: neeraj and alan; photos: alan (ig: @alan4america)
Over 100 people came together to work on incredible projects for our city this year at the 5th annual City of Houston Hackathon. We want more people to join us next year and enjoy the experience, so we put together a quick how-to. You may find some of the material here useful for “winning”, but the focus here is on enjoying your time. Quick tips are provided in pseudo-chronological order. When you first arrive, you need to:
Find your team
Finding a team can be stressful especially if you come late, if you don’t know anyone, and/or if you feel like other people have started and you’ll be left behind.
Be bold, be nosey. Go see what people are doing. If they aren’t clear yet, maybe you can jump in the conversation and start helping out right away. If they are already getting down to business, don’t be dismayed. They may not know how to fit you in, so it’s up to you to see what the moving parts are and if you can and want to contribute. Don’t be shy!
You can form a new team, too. Look for the people without a team and gather a few of them up. Ask them what they’re interested in working on, what they learned from walking around. Ask them what inspires them to be here, and maybe this will spark an idea for a common goal to work on.
Three key steps to success all occur early on.
Get to know your team
It’s important to get to know what skills and personalities you have around you. You’ll want to know what your team members’ skills, interests and motivations are. Aligning these with the project idea will be a major key to success.
Get on the same page about your idea
You want to get on the same page with your team, finding a common vision and setting team goals is again one of the keys to getting somewhere useful.
The best way to know you’re doing something really useful is to have someone who will utilize the product of your team’s work on your own team. An inside man/woman, if you will. Get a subject matter expert, and give them a voice. Listen and ask questions, and have the humility to adjust for what the real needs are.
Parcel out the work
Get people’s interests and skills lined up with the tasks at hand. If you have a small team, you’ll likely know what everyone is working on, and how they’re doing (you’ll hear the sighs, you’ll see the fist pumps). If you’re on a larger team, you can set some times to check-in and see how pieces are fitting together.
This is what you came here for! Get to it! Once you’ve figured out what you’re building, and why, this is where the fun starts. There should be no getting around it, this part is gonna consume the bulk of your time. That being said, there are things you should keep in mind.
Help each other out, it can be hard to ask for help if you feel like your team is counting on you for a critical piece. Instead, make it easier on each other by taking time away from what you’re working on and offering to help.
There are times you’ll feel a little bit like the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. If you find yourself saying “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”, remember to relax. Take some time for yourself. If you’re overwhelmed by the buzz and the fracas, you can step out and find quiet time.
Even if you don’t think you need a break, there are many good reasons to take a quick stroll. Stay hydrated. Stretch your legs. Get you some snacks. Make friends; go meet other teams, shoot the breeze and find something to laugh about.
Prepare to present
Before the weekend is over, you get to share your work with the world (or at least a few hundred Houstonians). Make sure you set aside time for working on the presentation. Practice communicating your project; define the problem you were addressing, the solution you came up with, and what its impact will be. You won’t have much time so you have to be clear and concise. Most of importantly of all, be excited.
Collect your thoughts and write down one or two things you really want people to come away with. Get feedback from people outside your team, because this will help you identify the context people need to have before you talk about what you did. If you have a designer on your team, lucky you! Their skill and experience in communication is a major asset here.
Be confident and be yourself. Don’t be nervous, everyone is excited about what you’ve done and eager to hear about it. The crowd is already on your side! Enjoy this part.
No matter where you place in the end, celebrate your achievement!
“Two straight days of hammering away at laptops and filling up whiteboards may be grueling hard work, but there’s always time for flashes of happiness. You snuck in a smile or two or three to your friends and colleagues. You were not so secretly proud of your own victories. Don’t hide it. Don’t be coy about it. You deserve to enjoy yourself.”
Thanks for reading. We hope to see you at a Sketch City hack night soon. Peace out y’all.
By Veronica Ramos
Editors’ note: This is a guest post from a participant at the 4th Annual Houston Hackathon, which was May 14-15, 2016. Many thanks to Veronica for sharing her perspective! – Sarah Rigdon
Allow me to paint a picture for you–it’ll give you some context. Promise. Ready? Read on.
The night before the Houston Hackathon–Friday, May 13th, scary–I absolutely regretted RSVP’ing to the Meetup page and mentioning to my friends…that I was going to a hackathon. Which, honestly, no one really understood because none of them are coders (just a bunch of yoga teachers). I had visions of a late brunch the next morning and binge watching Orphan Black on Amazon Prime. This all lasted about a second in my head. I needed some motivation. It was my first hackathon. I clicked my way over to the landing page, that took me to the Meetup page. After reading all the comments, I realized there would be a few newbies there, too! Done. Convinced. Convincing myself was way easier than I anticipated.
The next morning the early risers were a little shy or sleepy (guilty). That was an easy fix for Xela Coffee Roasters (shout out to Xela Coffee, you guys rule!), as they hand-brewed some delicious coffee for everyone to enjoy, Jeff and Sarah welcomed everyone, and excitedly played team match-makers as they introduced themselves. We were off to the races! More participants made their way into the main meeting room and started striking up conversations about their ideas. I quietly sat behind Carla and Christa (who were there to represent the Human Trafficking project) and curiously poked my head between them to ask what they were interested in.
That was the very beginning of something big. We began talking about human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking–and what the statistics are for the city of Houston. We quickly drew a crowd of interested and passionate hackers. Our project was centered around deterrence, investigation, and awareness. The next 24 hours taught me so much and just exactly what I want to share with you.
5 Reasons Why Hackathons Are a Must
- They Create Risk Takers.
Your first step to collaborating with others is striking up conversations. This is possibly the easiest step, though it can seem intimidating. Starting conversations with complete strangers is a risk, but in this kind of environment, it is never a bad thing. One or two things will happen, you’ll get answers to your questions and/or you’ll find your team. Win, win.
You’ll Find a New Community.
Usually, you’ll walk in by yourself and leave knowing at minimum 2+ people who are passionate about (or interested in) the same things you are. Shared passions and interest easily lead to friendships. Thank you Houston Hackathon!
You’ll Gain New Perspectives.
Hackathons are diverse. People here have different education backgrounds and are well versed in their area of expertise. You are guaranteed to learn about a different skill and or perspective. This environment is full of information waiting to be used to its fullest potential.
It Will Inspire You. Period.
A lot of the inspiring happens while you’re working side by side with your teammates. However, it doesn’t stop there. After the 24 hours is up, presentation time is upon you…the next few hours is filled with admiration and hope. You begin to see the people in the room differently and are in awe of how brilliant everyones idea is!
They Empower New Passions You Weren’t Aware Of.
There may be a way of thinking that hackathons are ONLY for those who code and love code. AND maybe they have been up until recently. I do neither of those things, currently. I’m a designer. I love design. After spending 24 hours with majority coders and developers, I found myself interested in what the developers were doing. Me? A developer? Why the heck not. You never know what ideas, skills, or beliefs will empower you to try something new while at a hackathon.
One last thing, if you haven’t made it over to the Houston Technology Center, go! What an awesome space to have access to for this event. They kindly opened their doors for all participants. I can’t imagine my first hackathon being any different or any better.
See you next year!
Veronica Ramos is a creative who has a passion for yoga and humanitarian causes. Her design projects have reached global to local audiences in government and politics, academics, and startups. In her spare time, she rides her bike and catches up with her loud Mexican family.
- The volunteers for being fantastic facilitators for all of the participants.
- The participants for showing up with their A game and contributing to fantastic projects to improve their communities and help solve problems in the Houston area.
- The judges for donating their time and expertise and making hard decisions.
- Our sponsors who made it all possible: Two Sigma and Boxer Property.
- All of the speakers for giving us something to think about: 2015 hackathon winner Kenton Gray, Council Member David Robinson, Council Member Amanda Edwards, and candidate for Harris County Sheriff, Ed Gonzales.
- Houston Technology Center for a great venue.
- Xela Coffee Roasters for the much-needed and delicious coffee.
- Grey Gardens Granola for a tasty breakfast on Saturday.
- Mike Stovall for making a poster that brought in newcomers from all across the city.
We had such great project submissions! Probably my favorite part of each hackathon is project presentations on Sunday, when every team gets up in front of the community and shares what they’ve done over the past 24 hours. Guaranteed goosebumps every time. If you’re ready to be blown away, check out the submissions page.
And the winners are…
Johns Beware (working title)
This is a project dedicated to ending sex trafficking by reducing demand, supporting law enforcement, and creating awareness.
District Finder API
This API allows other applications to find all sorts of political districts for a provided latitude and longitude.
Imagine you’re a vendor doing business with an organization that is based only in one city but has 22 AP groups.
And because choosing winners was such a tough decision, we have an honorable mention:
This is a service marketplace to empower and employ local citizens to address local municipal issues.
While we’re very excited about the winners this year, every project on that submissions page deserves attention, because they’re all amazing solutions that were developed in a single day by people just like you. They were coders and data scientists, yes, but also designers, writers, project managers, and subject matter experts who showed up to put their passion into solving big problems in Houston. Does that sound like you?
If you missed the hackathon but want to get involved, you don’t have to wait until next year. You can attend one of our monthly themed hack nights–the next one is June 14, 6-9 PM at Station Houston, and it’s all about housing. Join us!
And stay tuned for more civic magic. We <3 you, Houston.
Photo credit: Grace Rodriguez
First of all, thanks for coming to the hackathon and working on projects to make your community great! Now, what should you bring?
May we suggest bringing:
- Extension cords and/or surge protectors of your choice
- Any portable power blocks you might have
- Water bottle (see more under Food below)
- Snacks (see more under Food below)
- Pens, paper, or other tools you prefer to use for sketching out ideas and projects
- A sweater (Not to sound like your mom, it’s just hard to keep the same temperature in every room.)
- If you’re planning on staying overnight, a pillow and blanket isn’t a bad idea.
- hand sanitizer
- screen wipes
- something for downtime (Kindle, book, games, etc.)
Basically, if you can imagine needing it for a sleepover or a day at the office, you might want to err on the safe side and bring it.
We’ll provide all meals on both days for free on a first come, first served basis. We’ll also have some snacks, but if we run out, you might want to bring something on hand. Outside food is allowed in. We’ll try to provide veggie options but if you have any dietary restrictions, be sure to bring the food you’ll need. There is limited fridge space.
Among other treats, there will be coffee and granola thanks to local heroes XELA Coffee Roasters and Grey Gardens Granola! Houston Technology Center (HTC) has a water filter machine in the kitchen next to the main room for cold and hot water. We’ll provide some cups and a limited supply of bottled water.
HTC has a handy parking map of the area. There’s also a parking garage diagonally opposite to the HTC building (map here). Regarding parking meters, the City of Houston says, “Parking meters are enforced Monday through Saturday, 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., except where pay station or posted signs indicate otherwise.” More in the City’s parking FAQ. This means street parking is not free Saturday until 6 pm but it is free after 6pm Saturday and all day Sunday.
Code of conduct: be nice
We we want everyone to feel welcome, safe, and free to work on civic projects with teams or on their own at the hackathon and all Sketch City events. Please read and abide by the code of conduct while you’re there. If you feel uncomfortable at any time during the hackathon, please come find one of the organizers so we can help. Or email us and we’ll get right back to you: we’re firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
If you’ve never been to a hackathon:
Hey, welcome! Hackathons vary pretty widely in structure and goals. There are corporate hackathons, competitive hackathons, and educational and community-focused ones. The Houston Hackathon is in the educational and community-focused category. We’re part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, which is all about making your community a better place through civic tech projects.
Hackathons aren’t just for coders! You can work on projects and have fun at a hackathon no matter your skill set. We want the Houston Hackathon to be a great place to learn, meet people, and bring your project ideas to life. Plus, thanks to our sponsors and community partners, it’s free!
If you want to meet and talk to people before joining teams, come to the morning coffee on May 14 at 9 am. Or you can talk to them online in the project threads on Github. RSVP to the hackathon and check out the website for FAQs.
See you there!
This is the schedule for the 2016 City of Houston Hackathon.
Event FAQ: click here
Submit your project: click here
Event website: http://houstonhackathon.com
RSVP link: http://www.meetup.com/sketchcity/events/226899233/
Project ideas: https://github.com/sketch-city/project-ideas/issues
Live chat: http://sketchcity.herokuapp.com
Saturday, May 14
9a – 1130a:
Optional: Morning Coffee
This is an optional pre-event for earlybirds and people without a team. We will have a coffee stand from Xela Coffee Roasters, breakfast from Grey Gardens granola, and a whole bunch of ideas to kick around.
1200p – 1230p:
Kickoff & introductions: HTC auditorium.
Guest speakers include Councilmember David Robinson, Judge R.K. Sandill, and Deputy Controller Alex Obregon. Keynote by Kenton Gray, creator of 2015 Houston Hackathon winner Rollout!
Lunch served in the kitchen. Begin work. Check the FAQ for available rooms.
Optional: Intro to Github workshop. Get your computer set up for Github, and learn all about version control for code, documentation, and knowledge transfer. Location: Judge’s Room, 1st floor, left of kitchen.
Dinner served in the kitchen.
Late night snack.
Optional: stay overnight. If you plan to stay overnight, please let the organizers know where you’ll be working. We do not provide toiletries, linens, sleeping bags, etc.
Sunday, May 15
You can arrive as early as you like on Sunday morning.
Coffee & breakfast
Individual team check-ins.
Deadline for submitting your project to DevPost. Work stops. Volunteers begin assembling the auditorium.
Presentation order & briefing. Location: HTC auditorium. If you plan to present your project, you must have your project submitted in DevPost and be physically present.
Final awards, cleanup.