Feb 2, 2020

Hackathon Tips


recently attended my very first hackathon - MIT Reality Hack! I was always weary of attending hackathons because I like to go to sleep at night peacefully in a bed. The idea of pulling all-nighters is beyond me and hello - self-care! However, MIT Reality Hack was spread across 5 days at the MIT Media Lab and closed up shop at 11PM on hack days (although there was a 1AM extension one of the nights). Our team did relatively well given that we set out just to create a project for the experience. We placed top 5 in VR and won two categories:

  • Health and Wellness + Medical
  • Learning, Education, and Research

If you're interested in checking out the project, here's the post on Dev Post!

But with all that jazz aside, I'm here to talk about what I've learned from participating in my first hackathon. Hopefully what I have to share will help anyone out there preparing for their first (or next) hackathon!

Bring Headphones

There's a reason why I love working remote - I get SO distracted by the thought of being surrounded by people. It's also why I solely work in my home because I have more control over my environment. A hackathon is the complete opposite environment of where I thrive. Constant chatter and random computer sounds are basically my kryptonite!

However, my Beats (with noise canceling) were my savior! I didn't even need to turn on music of any sort. Having the headphones on essentially lowered the level of any sounds happening around me. If you're a music person, then playing music might just be the answer for you. As for me, having noise canceling headphones certainly made a difference.

Wear Comfortable Clothing

I'm all for fashion over comfort and seldom compromise how I look to be comfortable (I'm a fashionista, duh). HOWEVER a hackathon is NOT the place for such a mindset. If I were to tell you to sit in one spot on your computer for hours - what would you wear? Whatever your answer to that question, THAT is what you should wear to a hackathon.

For me, the answer was dreadfully basic tees, denim, hoodies and sneakers. Not to mention, MIT Reality Hack took place in Boston in January. Basically, I needed to be warm. I even packed a hat with me because I knew that by day 3, my hair would be a nervous wreck.

Comfort looks different for everyone. Therefore, wear what makes you comfortable!

Get Some Sleep

The fact that we weren't allowed to work on our projects outside the hackathon made it a perfect scenario for getting sleep each night. However, not all hackathons are setup in the same manner. Regardless, the body needs sleep. When you spend all day working on something, the quality of work in which you produce goes down.

If you're attending a hackthon that has more of the 'pull all-nighters' vibe, I would suggest planning a few power naps for each member of your team - even if it's just for a hour or so at a time.

Basically, our bodies need sleep.

Step a Little Outside Your Comfort Zone

Should you focus on areas and technologies in which you're obnoxiously good? Yes and no. Definitely make use of what you already know, however, don't be afraid to give something new a try. MIT Reality Hack was my first time doing anything with VR. Although I wasn't the one who setup the environment, I did help with sourcing a downloadable asset for the environment. I had to think about what made most sense for the experience we sought out to create. It turned out pretty great because the judges loved the environment. Fortunately, one of my teammates had 20+ years of working with VR and it was great to learn stuff from him.

I will say that a hackathon may not be the best place to try something in which you're 100% unfamiliar. You see, I had experience with spatial computing and AR. Therefore, VR was basically a cousin I had never met but got along with because it was family. The concepts overlapped and I wasn't completely lost with what we were building. Since time is of the essence, getting up to speed in a new technology in which you're unfamiliar could become a time suck.

Boost Your Immune System

I kept telling myself before boarding my flight that I should take some Emergen-C. However, I'm human and completely did no such thing. And guess what happened? On Day 1, I got laryngitis.

I spend most of my days at home which means I don't often surround myself with a lot of people. This works out in my favor when it comes to staying healthy at home but doesn't work out in my favor when I'm immersed in a room full of people for 5 days. From my days of attending CES, I can honestly say that if someone in the room is sick, I'm catching whatever is going around.

So, before heading to a hackathon, take whatever precaution that works best for your health to boost your immune system. Your body will thank you!

Use What You Have

MIT Reality Hack had a strict policy on what we could and could not use. For starters, we weren't allowed to purchase any expensive assets for our project. This meant that we were at the mercy of using free downloadable assets. And honestly, there are a lot of great free resources available on the internet that can make your project really stand out.

We made use of royalty free sounds, music and models for our project. Knowing where to search for such assets is key. Therefore, get an idea in advance (pre-hackathon) of websites that you may find helpful for finding free assets.

Also, you don't always need to go above and beyond and have the best of the best when it comes to assets. We really needed a voice actor to play the wizard in our app. It turns out, one of our team members had a GREAT voice for playing a wizard. Therefore, we made use of his voice which turned out to be an excellent choice for our app.

I hope that you get a chance to take part in a hackthon! It's a great opportunity to meet new people in the tech community and also a great opportunity to build something that benefits others. Oh, and don't forget, take pictures!