How to enjoy a hackathon

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.

Get validation

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.

Take breaks

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.

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