10 Tips for a Winning Hackathon Pitch

10TopTipsHackathonPitch

During the weekend of Mar 1st I volunteered at HackDFW. It was the biggest student Hackathon held in North Texas. I met many college undergrads, master students, and a few from high-school.

After seeing them in action I’m convinced everyone of them has a bright future ahead. Our local colleges represented well, but plenty of students traveled from out of state to demonstrate their skills.

Sharing

At this point in my career as a software engineer I know plenty of stuff. I feel it’s time for me to share as much as I possibly can with everyone willing to learn. Blogging, tweeting, and speaking at conferences are all ways I’ve done this. I’m even writing a book called Responsive Web Design Toolkit that’s on sale now.

Volunteering at HackDFW was a perfect chance for me to spend my time wisely investing in the community around me.

Adil Shaikh is my connection with HackDFW. He’s a colleague of mine at Sabre, and you can already guess how we first met. It was at one of our company’s hackathons a few years back. Adil is one of the tireless organizers of HackDFW, and when he told me what he was organizing, I had to say “let me help you!”

Speaking

One of the ways I helped out at HackDFW was delivering a talk called “10 Tips for a Winning Hackathon Pitch.” I’ve entered five hackathons and took top honors at three of them. Assembling a rockstar team is important, having a brilliant idea is crucial, building a killer project is key, but showing it off well is how teams win.

There’s an art and skill to presenting to judges. You’re getting their attention, you’re selling them on you and your idea, and you’re asking them to vote for you. Pitching to them in the right way gives you a competitive advantage separating you from all others.

In my opinion this talk was the best thing that I did in the 24 hours of HackDFW and I’m so pleased that Adil asked me to give it About 35 people showed up and the room held 200. Honetly I wanted the room packed, but that’s cool. With any luck others can still catch up with my message here, and by looking at the slides stored out on SlideShare.

Winning

My talk was scheduled before lunch on the second day. It was dedicated to sharing what I know about delivering winning hackathon pitches to judges. It was meant to lift up the teams as they wrap up their builds and prepare for demo time.

Guess who showed up 15 minutes early to my talk? The guy who sat front row and center. The guy who listened intently and took notes. The guy who stayed 15 minutes extra to talk through his fears and share his excitement with me. The guy whose team advanced to the final round of 7 presenting to the judges. Who showed up early to my talk and stayed late? The guy whose team won first place! W00T!

I couldn’t have been more stoked for him and his team. It was such a good day, and I’ll tell you what, I feel proud being a brief footnote in his life’s story. If I helped him and others then my time investment was worth it. Don’t forget I had some late nights the days before while preparing my presentation deck and speaker notes.

Advising

What else did I do at the hackathon? The first day I hung with the teams just sitting with them. I was finishing edits on my book manuscript in fact. A couple of teams tried recruiting me and I had to give a quick laugh and tell them I couldn’t. That’s when we had a chance to talk through their project ideas.

I felt I could best help them by talking through challenges and opportunities as I saw them. My goal was helping prioritize technical milestones and letting them hear out loud their project ideas while pitching to me. Flagging anything that I thought sounded hard (impossible) was helpful.

Afternoon was relatively quiet. Only a few more teams asked me to think through build plans and project concepts with them.

Answering

Dinner break is when it all got crazy. By that time teams clearly knew what they wanted to do and started doing it at great speed. When anyone hit a blocker they’d reach out for tech support. Eventually I grabbed my MacBook Air and jogged down to the information desk to stand there fielding questions students brought.

Organizers spun up a few Slack rooms and I supported the teams in there too. Some questions were specific enough that I could type back an answer with links to online documentation sites. Some calls over Slack were general shouts for help with a table number: “Need help debugging JavaScript at #120.” If I read enough subject keywords that I recognized I’d snatch up my MacBook Air and go on a hunt seeking out the team’s table.

Surprising

Overall I helped more often than not. I’ve gotta admit to you that before the event I hesitated volunteering. What if these college students knew more than me, and their questions were impossible? What if it just made me feel embarrassed to be stupid? In fact that that never happened.

When I only had part of an answer I still pushed teams along their path to success. Most were genuinely glad to have a helpful hand and thanked me for whatever I offered. It was a super optimistic group of students, and I was glad to be among them.

By 10pm the competitors were getting settled for a long night of building their ideas into reality. I was done and heading home. Needed to rest my brain with some sleep. Before hitting bed I practiced my talk because I was scheduled on stage the next morning. I ran through my presentation five times. Standing up, speaking out loud, and treating it like a dress rehearsal to make it feel more real. Gotta practice to be confident!

Reflecting

My first experience volunteering at a hackathon was fantastic. Supporting some of the 600+ student competitors from Texas and across the US was incredibly rewarding to me. Although it was mentally exhausting in its own way, I couldn’t have been happier being a small part of that great day.

I recommend a similar experience to you. If you’re an engineer, designer, or product manager, and wonder how in the world you can give back to their community, think of volunteering at a hackathon. Startup Weekend holds similar events.

When you have your own experience like this please share your story with me over Twitter. I can’t wait to hear of your success, and let’s do something awesome today!