Photo by Mika Baumeister / Unsplash

Defence Hackathon 2023 - Top tips for for your first Hack

Oct 12, 2023

I was lucky to be able to attend and take part in the Defence Hackathon 2023. It was a brilliant event and I thought I’d share my experiences as it was my first Hackathon. But first, some a bit of history.

What is a Hackathon?

In a simple form, a hackathon is an event where individuals or teams come together to collaboratively work on solving problems or creating innovative projects, typically within a limited time frame.

A note on team formations

In our Hackathon the teams were selected by the organisers into specific roles: project manager, UX design and technology based on skill set and experience. However, not all Hackathons operate this approach; some require you to have pre-formed teams.  

The structure of the Defence Hackathon 2023 was: Monday: workshops with industry partners. Tuesday: meetings in the morning followed by the ‘Hack’ starting at mid-day; Wednesday: a full day of hacking; Thursday: Hack ended at 12:00 followed by initial judging. Friday: Final judging for the top-3 teams and winners selected.

Top tips

Here are some tips I’d recommend when attending a Hackathon. 

  1. Rest before the event: This is important. When the event starts it will be fast paced, not just the Hack period, but also the workshops that often come before. The workshops are often focused on the technology stack of the sponsor.
  2. Take lots of breaks: While you may feel you can power through during the Hack this will be at your disadvantage, especially when you’re stuck on a problem. Take a break. Our approach was for every 2 sprints (each lasting 2 hours) we would have a 15-minute break. We also imposed a start time of 0600, and an endpoint of 0000. This ensured we had some rest.
  3. Meet your team: Our teams were formed in advance which gave us the opportunity to communicate via Disorder both via text and voice the week prior. This really helped overcome the 1st day nerves.
  4. Focus on the product - the presentation and pitch: During the Defence Hackathon we spent a lot of time getting a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) working, as well as documenting the code and making a stellar presentation. However, when it came down to the final judging, they only based it off the pitch deck. So make sure you check the marking schema for the Hack and focus your energies appropriately.
  5. Pack the essentials: Leave the energy drinks at home and pack brain foods, healthy snacks, and healthy beverages. Having low quality food will result in a poorer mindset. Most Hackathon’s are well stocked on coffee, small snacks, and water.
  6. Don’t focus on high fidelity - focus on the middle ground: Some teams were very ambitious from the start and overestimated their abilities. It is important to think of a basic MVP and what you can do. Our approach was to be conservative, and once we’d rolled out our basic MVP, we’d add features only if we had time. So, focus on the middle ground, focus on visually, use dummy data but use some fancy techniques.
  7. Communicate via Disorder: Communicate is so key during a Hack. Discord was a great way to keep the team connected. We also used the platform through to check-in on team members for health and well-being.
  8. Ask for help - Don’t wait: You have a limited amount of time to produce a product. You don’t have time to waste. Therefore, it is important if you’re in a rut to ask your teammates, or technology advisors for help. The code you create doesn’t need to look pretty; it just needs to work.
  9. Use GitHub but understand branching: When you have multiple team members working on the codebase, you need to understand how GitHub branching, merging and pulls work. It is a beautiful invention, if used correctly, but can also be a nightmare. If you’ve never used it before, practise! It will save you time during the event.
  10.   Connect with event sponsors: Hackathons aren’t just about winning; it is also about meeting new people and networking. It is important to get out of your team, meet other folk from other teams and event sponsors. Often, they have more knowledge of the problem sets, suggestions for direction, or even job opportunities.
  11. Use design tools such as Figma: This was a clean code Hack, meaning you have no code or frameworks setup in advance. While we were setting up the codebase and basic wireframe the design team were using Figma to create a full mock-up of our proposed solution. We were able to use this as part of our user research, identify bottlenecks and overall design improvements.
  12. Be realistic in your MVP: There were several teams who had to pivot multiple times due to being too ambition in the MVP. Development will always take longer, especially in a pressurised environment. Therefore, it is important to identify product and features which can easily be delivered within the Hack time frame. If you’re able to generate these features/products, then add more. But get a working product, not an idea.
  13. Use sponsored product and APIs: Often at hackathons they have technology sponsors who allow you to use their technology stacks for free. In our event we had Amazon AWS and Azure. Try to harness the wide breadth of technology available and you may just win the technology partner prize.

Overall, it was a great experience. I’d recommend anyone who is interested in technology to do it at least once.