Off the Shelf Parts for Hackathon Build Night


Off the Shelf Parts for Hackathon Build Night

Build night during hackathons are generally insane. Why? Because things don’t fall into place, time is short, and missing pieces aren’t found. Connecting the dots is always more difficult than you want it to be. Sometimes you don’t even have the dots to connect.

What follows are dots.

Ones that have served me well at stressful, sleep deprived nights. You’ll find that some of these dots are the finishing touches improving your overall build. Quality makes a demo for your judges to ooh and aah over. Discover some are the fundamental dots that your project runs on like an engine fitting into a chassis.

Consider making your build night easier by pulling down some of these pieces that fills in your blank spots.

Need an API?

Many hackathon projects combine the results from several APIs for a unique presentation. Maybe you already choose an API, and need complementary data. Perhaps you have an idea of a data type, but not the source. Is there a way that you can find APIs in some type of catalog? Yes.

Check out Programmable Web.

Need a Font?

Does your website’s UI need a cool looking font to make its text pop? You can buy one, or you can use one for free. Does it seem like free fonts are cheap and ugly looking? Not so.

Plenty of free, high-quality fonts are available courtesy of Google Fonts.


Saving data query results can save your demo. In computer science caching refers to storing data in memory. Where does that data come from? Probably an expensive process taking network time or cranking the CPU. Get it once and store the data on disk, then use it as much as your hack needs.

Caching data has saved me more than a few times. For example when my free-tier API hit a rate-limit during development, and when wifi dropped before demo time.

Who Does What When

Perfect execution means your team defies the limited time of build night by getting the most from it. Wasting the least amount of time possible gives your team an edge over the competition. Organizing your team with purpose is a key trait of leadership. You’ll need that quality to pull together as an effective unit.

Tasks need to be defined, estimated, and prioritized from beginning to end. They must be pulled in order, shown as in progress, assigned to a person, and dropped in the done bin. This way everyone can be head’s down, but still entirely aware of what others are doing. Keep talking, but as the night goes on, you’re not going to remember what needs to be done.

Start your build night strong by sorting out your project’s needs in the daylight hours when you’re clear headed and thinking straight.

Use Trello to organize your tasks, and your self.

Big Data Sources

Are you going to wring out some big data exercises, visualizations, machine learning? The first part of big-data is have some data! I found carsar0301 is listing a stockpile of publicly available datasets.

Browse through the seemingly unending list and choose one that helps your team’s goal!

Demo Hard

Need helpful pro tips on delivering a winning pitch? Check out my talk for thoughts on 10 concrete ways to give a fantastic presentation.

Your User Needs an Interface

How do you make an attractive hackathon demo when your team is all engineers? Does it need to be good looking? I say yes because the event’s judges are human beings and they’re going to respond positively to beauty – just like any of us do.

Look for online resources that give guidance for good UIs if your team lacks a designer. Mindfully pull from them what your project needs.

Google Material design is a good resource to pull inspiration from.

Write Down Your Thoughts

Consider keeping a journal during your hacking adventure. Take time to mindfully reflect on your mental, physical, and emotional impressions. Write down what comes to you.

Time will fly by during build night and you won’t remember it. A journal provides memories of all the things that happened during your time together as a team.

Does this Color Look Right to You?

Your user interface will need colors and someone will need to choose them. What if your team consists of engineers who don’t know crimson from vermillion? Don’t get trapped choosing from all the colors in existence. Instead pick from a limited palette set of modern colors prearranged to be lovely.

Look at this one to see an uncluttered set that will help you quickly make your UI functional and easy to recognize and digest.

You Have Questions They Have Answers

Is an API or language syntax driving you crazy? Is a library or framework tickier to shove into place than you thought it’d be? Hackathons often have volunteers ready to answer questions during build night, but what happens when they’re not around? Nearby competitors won’t have time to stop work and help you.

Hitting up Google search for answers to technical questions is a skill in itself. Time to flex that seek-and-find brain muscle.

Go straight to the source of most answers on Stack overflow. It’s community of big-brains offers up their collective wisdom on most things programming.

Web Design Layout

Building a mobile-first, or responsive, website with an easy to use grid-based layout takes experience and work. First you’d build the core CSS tech. Then you’d finally get to the job of actually doing the work you want to.

Pull down the Zurb Foundation framework to get a turbo boost of productivity instead of writing lots of front-end web scaffolding.

Dumping Files into a Cloud Closet

Hosting a pile of static assets like pictures and sounds is easily done with the power of Amazon Web Services S3. It’s inexpensive too. This cloud storage facility is a simple tool to pull in. Use it to solve the problem of where you’re serving up unchanging resources.

Choose Wisely

Go into the competition with an idea and a plan. Visualize success with your team before you sit down at a table on build day. Don’t join a team unless their idea is something you really want to make real. Otherwise the 24 hour build night will be an unhappy grind that feels never-ending.

Picking an idea, and visualizing success, means imagining something that you can successfully make. Figure out what’s the MVP and get it working early. As soon as possible. Sooner than that! Get that working code into your source revision control system. Gain confidence knowing you have something demo-worthy sitting safely in the bank. Then move forward. When features are taking too long to finish you must mindfully edit your to-do list.

Remember that finishing is always better than starting.

Hosting Web Services

Are you building a backend web server? Most every server-side language is supported in the run-time containers of Heroku. They have simple integration with git, and a free-tier. Host your website in a public space for quick demoes.

Present to the judges off of the Heroku cloud network.

There’s a free tier making it easy to leave your work up after the event. Show off your good work to anyone willing to play with your ideas. Announce your domain name any way possible during the hackathon. See if it becomes sticky or goes viral!

Icons Are So Hot Right Now

Icons are a common part of UI design. Buttons, options, charts, and reports have decorative details like iconography. Iconic symbols representing features your users interact with are expected. Adding icons to your UI can make it feel more usable and look better.

It’s unlikely that you’ll make quality icons during build night. Usually, it takes too long to make good ones. For teams lacking graphic designers creating icons is a non-starter.

If this is your case, pull icons from the amazing collection called Font Awesome.

Website Tech Stack?

I’ve won a few hackathons. What was my favorite winning tech stack? NodeJS + Express + Handlebars. It’s a satisfying way to build a project that takes JavaScript from frontend to backend.

Read my blog article for specific details.

Confidence Breeds Success

Have an eye towards the final delivery throughout build night. The pitch you’ll deliver reveals your creation to the collected jury who judges your team’s creative effort. Any public speaker will share a common idea with you – preparation is the foundation of a successful pitch.

You might not be blessed with the natural confidence to get in front of a crowd of people and draw their attention towards you. That means you’re a human being.

Watch a fantastic talk Amy Cuddy delivered to a TED audience about confidence. She suggests you “fake it ’til your make it”, and that everyone has the right to have their idea heard.

Look Pro for Free

Assembling a professional-grade, fine looking user interface, might be too much work for you and your team. Pre-rolled themes based on the Bootstrap HTML & CSS framework will make it easier to show a clean, consistent UI.

Search in Google for “free bootstrap themes” and discover what the community of graphic designers has made. Confirm the one you like is free and fair for use. Pull one down and make your website more appealing.

Like a Vault, but for teh Codes

About 16 hours into build night you and the team are going to make some questionable decisions. Don’t check in a file that you’re not positive works. Wait – you’re checking in code right? Into a source code repo like a proper, professional would? Of course you are!

You probably use Git because it’s incredibly useful. If your team needs a cloud-based server try the fee tier of GitHub.

Have Great Success

Winning your hackathon will be brilliant fun. Even without a win I believe you can have great success. Define what success is for you and your team. Then go achieve it.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know of your success. Let’s do something awesome today!