I Survived My First Hackathon, and You Can, Too!

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When I told my friends and family I’d signed up for my first hackathon, they pictured me breaking into private accounts to dig up dirt (presumably wearing a ski mask akin to just about every stock photo of a hacker). Compared to them, I can’t say I was a total hackathon noob, but I definitely hadn’t hacked anything before.

Attending hackathons hosted and sponsored by 50onRed gave me a pretty good grasp on what they were all about: teaming up and building apps and websites. Still, I was hesitant when my coworker asked if I wanted to participate in LadyHacks, a hackathon we sponsored for women and anyone who identified as a woman. My dev skills don’t extend much further than the basic HTML I’d taught myself 15 years ago to build my ‘N Sync fansite (which, by the way, wasn’t awful for the time!).

Like many other hackathons, LadyHacks wasn’t just for developers. In fact, anyone with an interest in tech was encouraged to come hack. That made me feel comfortable enough to sign up, but I still worried I’d be the girl on the team without any relevant skills to contribute, which would inevitably lead to a Mean Girls “You can’t sit with us!” situation.

Fortunately, everyone at LadyHacks was super nice and inclusive. There was a range of ages and skill levels, and I fit right in with my experience in content and UX. I ended up on a team with some girls from Girl Develop It, and we made some pretty nice improvements to their redesigned website.

Ashley’s wo-manning our table at #LadyHacks2015. Stop by for free swag!

A photo posted by 50onRed (@fiftyonred) on

Not only did I have a lot of fun and meet a bunch of talented ladies, but I also learned a lot from my first hackathon. Whether you’re a master at code, design, or UX; just starting to develop your skills; or simply have a passion for tech; participating in a hackathon is great experience. Here are some pointers to prep for your first time:

Come prepared.

Aside from a laptop (obviously), you’ll want to bring snacks to stay fueled, caffeinated drinks to stay awake, and business cards to stay in touch with everyone you meet.

LadyHacks wasn’t an overnight event, but many hackathons are. If you’re attending an overnight hackathon, bring your toothbrush, a change of clothes, and deodorant. Working in close quarters with a bunch of hackers will inevitably get pretty smelly.

Have ideas.

Coming in with a few project ideas in your back pocket definitely doesn’t hurt. Even if you don’t know if your idea is feasible, pitching it can make you more memorable.

I decided to pitch an idea at the last minute. It didn’t pan out, but it felt pretty awesome getting applause from a group of people, and some approached me later to tell me how much they liked my idea.

Find your niche.

Before teaming up, get a sense of everyone’s areas of expertise. Ask them about their project ideas, if they haven’t already been pitched. Find out where your skills will be most beneficial, and recruit people with the skills your team needs.

Get the inside scoop.

On the first night, I talked up one hacker who’d gone to last year’s LadyHacks (and plenty of other hackathons). She gave me a really helpful rundown of what to expect: Teams don’t have to be finalized on the first night; We’ll probably see some new pitches in the morning; You can switch teams if you change your mind, etc. It really took the pressure off, because, by the end of the first night, I still didn’t have a project or team nailed down.


Sponsors and mentors are great resources. Not only can they can help you out of a bind when you hit a roadblock in your hack, but they could also be your connection to a job in the tech field. Many sponsors and mentors attend hackathons primarily for recruiting purposes, so if you’re on the hunt for a job, make a big impression!

Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Be realistic with the time and team you have. Expect to run into some kinks that’ll take time to iron out. Some hacks won’t be doable, so you might have to scale yours back. Building something simple that’s cool and interactive is better than presenting a PowerPoint with a grand idea. You can always talk about how you’d like to build out your hack in the future, which will make your project more impressive. Remember: Done is better than perfect.