Succeeding at hackathons

Hack the North
6 min readSep 3, 2020


Written by: Advait Maybhate

What does it mean to succeed at hackathons? Winning a prize? Making new friends? Getting free food and swag? Meeting sponsors? Learning new skills?

Why not all of the above? Regardless of what hackathon you attend, where it be virtual or in-person, your definition of success depends on how you make the most out of the experience. Although winning a certain prize can definitely be one of your goals, there are other parts of a hackathon you can succeed in:

  • Coming up with an idea💡
  • Finding a team 👥
  • Building the project 🔨
  • Networking 🗣
  • Nailing the demo 👨‍💻
  • Continuing the project 📅

💡 Coming up with an idea

Much like the classic “writer’s block”, it’s easy to fall prey to “hacker’s block” where you can’t think of an idea for your hack. In such instances, I like to connect two seemingly unrelated topics together. Check out the Hackathon Project Generator to help you get started!

Don’t worry if you don’t have an idea going into the hackathon — some of the best hacks I’ve seen were conceptualized at the start of the event. At the same time, don’t allow yourself to get bogged down on picking an idea if there are simply too many choices — choose one and stick with it! Of course, it’s best to still be flexible with changing paths if you realize halfway through that a certain approach might be too difficult to implement.

If the hackathon provides any guidelines around API prizes or has specific themes, that can be another great way to jump-start idea generation! Try talking to sponsors about any pains they face as a company — can you help create a solution?

👥 Finding a team

Hackathons are some of the best places to make new friends! Don’t be afraid if you don’t know anyone else going to a hackathon — there’ll be tons of opportunities to meet new people. Personally, I’ve made teams on bus rides to the event 🚌 , during organized team-forming sessions, and over Slack/Discord 💬. Try to keep an open mind when searching for a team! Don’t be too narrowly focused on pursuing a certain idea or having “ideal teammates” in mind — you may be surprised by the people you meet!

My team from Hack the North 2017

🔨 Building the project

Building the project may seem like the most daunting task at a hackathon but it’s also the one that should be the most fun!

Here are a few tips for building out your projects:

  • Chalk up bite-sized goals — try to split up your project into several milestones. This will help you track your progress and make sure someone’s covering all parts of your project.
  • Parallelize work within your team — how can you minimize dependencies on each other, to prevent someone from idly waiting around? Can someone handle the user interface while someone else tackles the backend API? Try to focus on optimizing task assignments based on each team member’s particular strengths.
  • Don’t try to reinvent the wheel — if there’s an API/library that solves a hard problem, that isn’t the focus of your project, then use it! You aren’t expected to create a revolutionary new algorithm (although, you definitely can). Hackathons are all about creating a scrappy project by combining bits and pieces in an innovative way.
  • Timeboxing — it can be easy to lose track of time when debugging a painful problem but make sure that you don’t spend excessive amounts of time on it. Reach out to mentors if you’re stuck on anything —they’re here to help! In some cases, it might be worth it to go back to the drawing board and re-define why a certain approach was taken — does it really need to be done this way? Is there a simpler way to accomplish the same task?
  • Take frequent breaks — don’t try to go all-out for the entirety of the hackathon! You’ll be amazed at how much a quick stroll away from your computer or participating in a fun activity can help your brain recharge to more easily tackle problems you’re working on.
A team from Hack the North 2019 building a hardware hack

For more tips and resources, check out the blog one of our Backend organizers, Simran, wrote on building projects effectively at hackathons!

🗣 Networking

Hackathons are bustling hubs of smart, awesome people — you should take advantage of this opportunity. You can meet cool sponsors working in different fields and learn more about the new technologies they’re working on! Beyond sponsors, remember that there are tons of other hackathon attendees with interesting backgrounds like hackers, organizers, workshop leads, mentors, and volunteers. Try to connect with as many people as you can! Can you learn something new from every person you meet? Whether it’s a new technical tool or a piece of life advice, being curious can take you far! They might even help you find the coolest pieces of swag 😛

Sponsor Bay at Hack the North 2019

👨‍💻 Nailing the demo

A successful demo doesn’t mean one that goes smoothly and wins you a prize. I believe that a successful demo is one where you put in your best effort to show what you’ve built throughout the hackathon. This means that you don’t need a 100% complete project to demo! Don’t worry if it doesn’t function exactly the way you want it to — judges aren’t expecting a super-polished corporate product that’s ready for widespread release. They want to see that you built something that solves real-world problems and learned from the experience.

Here are a few tips:

  • Practice in the environment you’ll be presenting in — This avoids any unforeseen issues such as WiFi problems or adapter issues for displays.
  • Get everyone in your group involved — Don’t just rely on a single person to present, everyone should participate. This also shows judges how each of you contributed to the project.
  • Focus on the applications of your work — How does this help others? What will this project accomplish if it was released? What problem does this project address? How is it better than existing solutions?
  • Rest before the demo — This can be tough if you’re trying to implement some last-minute features but a few hours of sleep can go a long way!
  • Be passionate — Everyone should be excited about your project. The first step to accomplishing this is to be excited about it yourself!
  • Don’t try to memorize the pitch — Create a mental map of the points you want to cover. This way, you’ll be able to better adapt to unforeseen changes during the demo such as questions from the judges.
  • Anticipate common questions and prepare responses — In some cases, you may even want to pre-emptively include the information in your presentation e.g. What are the next steps for this project? How would you scale this project? What are the challenges you faced? What’s something new that you learned?
  • Quantify certain aspects of your project e.g. How large is the potential market?
A group at Hack the North 2019 presenting their project to our judges

📅 Continuing the Project

This is something that I definitely struggle with, but it’s a great idea to continue your project beyond the hackathon itself — try to get your team on board as well. After the hackathon, you have a lot more time to polish up the project and add more features to make it something that you’re proud of. Some hackathon projects have even gone on to become highly successful businesses!

Remember that you can shape your own success at a hackathon, which doesn’t necessarily mean winning prizes — there are other areas to excel in. Go out there and make the most of the experience, whether it’s an in-person or virtual hackathon. Hackathons aren’t meant to be entirely stressful — have fun and happy hacking! 😃

Hack the North is scheduled for January 15–17, 2021 🎉

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Hack the North

1,000+ students from across the globe join us at Hack the North, Canada’s biggest hackathon, for 36 hours of dreaming big and building incredible projects.