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Kailana Kahawaii
Kailana Kahawaii

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Participating in a virtual hackathon

2020 is the year of the virtual well, everything. Virtual hackathons are quickly becoming a way for professionals, students, and everyone in between to connect and build software projects. After having participated and couple myself, I thought I’d share my experiences.

Choosing a hackathon that’s right for you

Many organizations host virtual hackathons. Just look the eventbrite page! That’s a lot to choose from, so it may be helpful to break hackathons into three basic categories.

Companies put on these hackathons for their employees. A lot of times, they involve cross-functional teams working together to build a new feature or work with a specific non-profit organization. These hackathons are generally not available to the general public.
Just like any competition, these hackathons involve teams coming together and building a product or feature in a fixed amount of time. These tend to be what most people think of when they think of hackathons. Winning one of these can net you anything from recognition to substantial financial prizes.
These are the hackathons I like to participate in. Join a nonprofit organization and build a product or feature that addresses some sort of social need. Most projects don’t end when the hackathon ends either. You become part of a community creating great, civic tech software.

Before you join

For competitive hackathons, the planning and building phase happens during the hackathon. However, for other types of hackathons, it may be a good idea to check in with the team before the hackathon starts. After all, you don’t want to spend the whole day trying to get the environment to work on your computer when you could be building a feature. That’s why it’s good practice to reach out to the project lead a few days before starting the hackathon. They often have a good idea or feel for the architecture, or can get you in touch with someone who does.

It’s also a good time to figure out what part you’d like to work on. While some projects just have a single engineering team, others have multiple teams.

Day of the hackathon

You’ve signed up. You’ve met with the team. Now it’s time to get to work on a feature. Project leads usually have a set agenda about what they want to accomplish during the hackathon day. In the morning, you’ll probably get a brief introduction to you project and the other projects in the hackathon. If you haven’t signed up with a specific team with that point, it’s a good time to join up with a project that speaks to you.

After getting set up with a project, you’re generally tasked with some feature to work on. Most hackathons have your team work in a separate video conference “room” where it’s easy to ask for help should you need it. You may also have access to a messaging app, like a Slack channel. These messaging systems are invaluable when someone leaves the room as it keeps everyone in the loop. Slack especially lets people share code samples and other media that just isn’t optimized through most video conferencing software at this point.

At the end of the day, your team may be asked to present what features you worked on. It’s the best time to share the progress you’ve made with your group. It may also be a good time to share contact information so you continue to work on the project.

After the hackathon

Sometimes you don’t always finish a feature during the hackathon day. You may be tasked to work on it at a later date. Your team may have a set time to meet, or may check up with you every now and then.

It’s isn’t just about software engineering

Hackathons aren’t just for developers. Many projects also need designers, writers, strategists, and other subject matter experts to get off the ground.

Pros and Cons

The ability to join a hackathon from anywhere is a pro as much as a con. Sometimes, participants can simply just drop off the call and disappear. Other times, it’s the time difference itself that can be a hurdle. However, the ability to meet others from all over the country or the world is invaluable when building a software project.

The video conferencing software itself can also be buggy or hard to work with at times. Every team has their own way of navigating this, and, if they’ve participated in a hackathon before, they likely have ways around these glitches as well. As mentioned before, a messaging app is a great way around this.

As easy as it is to meet people from around the world, it’s much harder to chat with people on other teams. An inperson event allows you to bump shoulders with others that just doesn’t happen at virtual events. Some hackathons provide working lunches or social times to meet others, though it’s usually awkward to chat with another person while forty or fifty people are also on the call. I’ve found that reaching out to someone after the hackathon can work, but again, it wouldn’t be the same as meeting in person.

Why participate in a virtual hackathon

If you love thinking about and creating software, hackathons are the place to ignite your passions and connect with others. A virtual hackathon is a great way to build your skills, connect with others in the industry, all the while navigating our (new) remote world. If you’ve been considering participating in a virtual hackathon, now’s a great time to jump in. It may also be the only time some of these hackathons host online events, so don’t wait!

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