My Hackathon Flame-Out And How To Avoid One

Definition of a hackathon flame-out: A hackathon flame-out occurs when a participant gets so frustrated and discouraged that they leave the hackathon before it ends.

This weekend I took time off of work to participate in the Pebble Rocks Boulder Hackathon. The hackathon is described as

on-whiteseventy-five bold designers, developers, and makers will use Pebble Time smartwatches, Lulzbot 3D printers, and their own wits to create something physical, something new, something kickass.

I was invited to cover the hackathon for my blog by Viget but decided to be bold and participate in the hackathon. This was my first mistake. I signed up solo and planned on joining a team when I got there. This was my second mistake. I ended up on a very disorganized team with very high expectations led by a guy that I didn’t trust. Here’s how I ended up experiencing the hackathon:

Seventy-five bold designers, developers, and makers will create a device (hardware hacking) that connects to the Pebble’s Smartstrap port (low-level programming) to interact with a Pebble app (C programming) that can be configured with a mobile app (Java programming) and receive info from an API (JavaScript, HTTP, JSON).

7fd2d5300f521969b4bc52cecb23eb9dA computer science student with social anxiety from being introverted will combine impostor syndrome with strangers and spend 2.5 days working on something completely new with technology he’s never used with people he has never met.

Instead of a a fun hackathon, I felt like I was participating in a torturous Computer Science capstone project. No wonder I had a flame-out!

Now, let me make this clear. I in no way place any blame on the organizers of the hackathon. They were all very approachable, friendly and knowledgeable. They used the resources of Galvanize Boulder very well and were very supportive. I would have had a blast if I had done this right.

Here are a few tips to make sure you do not experience a hackathon-flameout at a weekend hackathon:

  • DO NOT go alone. There will be some point during the hackathon that you will feel like a failure. By going with a friend, you’ll have someone there to support you and when they do you’ll believe them.
  • DO NOT go to a hackathon to learn brand new things. Go to confirm what you do know. 2.5 days to learn something brand new then make something you want to show to strangers is way too much pressure.
  • DO make sure you are comfortable with creating an answer to the basic question of the hackathon. Does the hackathon ask you to create a mobile app? Make sure you can create a mobile app. Does the hackathon ask you to create hardware? Make sure you can create hardware.
  • DO make sure you’re comfortable with your team. At some point you will need help. Make sure you are comfortable asking for help from your teammates.
  • DO rest. Just because you are allowed to work all night for two nights does not mean you need to work all night. Getting sleep will allow you to work through issues much easier.

If you have any tips on avoiding a hackathon flame-out I would love to hear them and pass them along. I think I’ll be done with hackathons for a while though.