2 Hackathons in 2 Weeks: Top 5 Takeaways

Did you know that the problem itself can be just as important as the solution in a hackathon, if not more so? Or that as the team leader, “why” questions can do more harm than good?

Well, neither did I until I participated in my 2 first-ever hackathons (one in AI by TKS and soon after another one called the Digital Inclusion Challenge). So prepare yourself because I’m about to drop some knowledge 🎤

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Communication is 🔑

During one of the hackathons, my team and I didn’t have great communication at the beginning. We had about a week and a half to solve a problem and we landed on human longevity, or more specifically stem cell exhaustion which is one factor that causes ageing 🧓

We vaguely split up some roles and “got to work”. All was well except for the fact that none of us had any clue what we were doing and we all relied on the fact that someone else on the team knew what was going on. Spoiler alert: no one did. We all aimlessly did some research but got nowhere 🛣
Thankfully, during a team meeting, we all confessed that this was not working!

We regrouped, figured out an actual specific problem to solve, and assigned super-specific roles with deadlines and descriptions.

That’s when we actually started getting work done!

Another example of this occurred during the second hackathon, where half of our team had a completely different vision for our product compared to the other half. We caught this miscommunication before it was too late, but it definitely took away from our precious, limited time ⏱

This is the #1 takeaway from both my experiences! COMMUNICATE & BE HONEST with your team!

Assign Someone To Keep the Team On the 🏀

In TKS, we call this one person responsible for keeping others on the team accountable the project manager or PM. You can call them whatever you want, manager, director, leader. But there needs to be someone who is making sure that everything’s getting done, everyone’s doing their work, or if they aren’t, why that is ✅

Here are two quick takeaway within this takeaway (takeaway-inception!):

1. If you’re the PM, you *cannot* be too strict on your team. This doesn’t mean you just let them off the hook for missing tons of deadlines, but it does mean that you’re not breathing down their necks every time they’re late to a meeting by 1 minute.

2. Don’t ask “why” questions

Let’s break down what I mean with a hypothetical example.
You’re in a team of 5 and you’ve been chosen as the PM (congrats!) You have 1 month to get a project done and you have some hard deadlines set for when to get things done. The first one is 2 days into the project. If someone misses the deadline, message them once. Give them a few hours and give them a chance to explain themselves before sending a second message. This brings me to my next mini takeaway.

You have to check in with your team about why they’re not meeting the deadlines, if they’re not. But don’t use “why” questions (thanks Ananya for this awesome tip 😊)! Why not? Because it makes people defensive.
Think back to a time when someone’s asked you “why aren’t you getting work done?” It triggers something within us that puts us on guard. Now listen to this “what can I do to help you meet the deadline?”

This doesn’t mean you always have to be super soft on them. Sometimes you might have to ask “what’s going on that’s stopping you from achieving our team goals?” But this ensures the team stays harmonious and not divided 🔗

Get Feedback (All the Time)!

The process a successful team would follow!

You might’ve heard this about a million times so I won’t repeat it too many times.

Instead, take a look at these gifs that help you understand why feedback is so so crucial!

And here’s a real-life little anecdote to really drive the idea home:

The process a not-so-successful team would follow!

(Flashback) My team and I are working on a pretty cool project that involves ageing and AI all in one 🖥 We’re getting some solid work done but we haven’t talked to anyone outside our own group about a) how good of an idea this actually is and b) whether this is a good project for a week-long hackathon.
Both great questions, gone unanswered until we finally get some feedback the day before submissions are due. All of it is super solid feedback that we should implement. None of it is feedback we can implement because there’s just no time ⌛️ Submission roles around, we submit our project knowing we could’ve done better with the feedback (but still being proud of ourselves for producing something interesting 🎉)
Moral of the story: get feedback all the time and get it sooner than later so you actually have time to implement it!

Practice Anti-Fragility

This goes hand-in-hand with the last point but is crucial in order for feedback to be remotely useful. A lot of us become very fragile when it comes to work we’re proud of 🔨 👓 You and everyone else you know has been through this.
You work super hard on a project and then someone makes a genuinely fair and constructive comment but you get pretty upset about it.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you can’t be getting upset if you want to be able to implement that feedback. Hence, anti-fragility ❌ 🔨 I’m not gonna lie; it takes some work to build up your anti-fragility but my best tip for practising this mindset is this…

Take a second to evaluate if the feedback you’re being given is solid and valid. Try to be objective! If it is, then write it down. In a few minutes come back with some fresh eyes and see where you can apply the feedback!

Problem > Solution

I put this down here to make sure you saw it even if you scrolled right to the end 😳 You should spend a healthy amount of your time during the hackathon on the problem instead of the solution!!

Sounds counterintuitive right? It’s not! How can you possibly have a solution if you don’t a) understand your problem or (more importantly) b) even know if your problem exists and actually affects a substantial number of people? You can’t 🚫

Now if you’re doing a 24h hackathon, your focus on the problem may only be a few hours, but make sure to validate your problem! With long hackathons, spend a few days on this; thank me later!

TL;DR

  1. Communicate with your team about everything and be honest if you’re not getting things done!
  2. Assign a project manager, or PM, to keep everyone on the ball
    – As the PM, don’t be way too hard on your team; put yourself in their shoes
    – Avoid “why” questions because they tend to make people defensive and dishonest!
  3. Get feedback even at the early stages and get if often!
  4. Practice anti-fragility so you can implement actual high-quality feedback
  5. Spend time on your problem as well as your solution!

Thanks for reading and good luck on your next hackathon/project! I know you’ll nail it 🏅

Hey there 👋 Parmin here; I’m a 14 y/o student studying stem cells at The Knowledge Society 🧪 Everyday, I aspire to uncover the secrets of biology and learn something new! Make sure to follow me on Medium to hear about every new article I post, connect with me on LinkedIn, or contact me at parminsedigh@gmail.com!

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Hey! I’m Parmin, a 14-year-old passionate about biotech & medicine 🧬 I love problem-solving & challenges myself so I can become the best version of myself 🧠

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