5 Lessons Learned from the 2015 SF TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon

This was my fourth year attending the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, but it was the first year I seriously considered competing in it myself. Hackathons are akin to a jam session for geeks. They thrust people together who share an idealistic sense of fate and are often determined (almost bound) to do innovative things. That magic is why people want to be in Silicon Valley. This year the vendor booths were way bigger and hardware was everywhere! I saw more hardware than in the last 3 hackathons combined. Sweet!

Whenever we participate in a big conference or event at CircleClick we put together what’s called a lessons learned document. Lessons are neither good nor bad, it’s not about being right or wrong. It’s about learning what’s useful for the future as a process. Whether you realize it or not almost everyone can teach you something and almost everyone can learn something from you too.

This is my agency’s blog and not a company document so I wanted to casually share my practical observations about this year’s TechCrunch Hackathon in SF. Full disclaimer there are some past experiences thrown in the mix as well as this wasn’t my first code rodeo.

1. People who show up to the event sans team need a pre-designated physical place to find a team, not the whole event space. Over the past few years this has been a big source of stress. While Devpost is a pretty cool tool, there are soooo many steps. We can all do better than email when we’re already together face to face. A nice sign somewhere that says “looking for a team? go here to meet up” would go a long way. I’ve seen soooo many intelligent people stress out over this, it causes anxiety to just show up and not know where to go to find a team.

2. Mentoring is a great way to participate in a Hackathon. This year I helped a few different teams, including my husband’s team. I don’t need to be recognized as a mentor to want to do this again.  However, it’s really not a bad idea for Hackathons to designate industry leaders who volunteer to help (other than just sponsors or event staff). It would be nice to see more vendor agnostic help provided for fledgling tech teams. Many of the vendors were extremely nice and super helpful. The folks at IBM Watson and PCH specifically were in it to win it for the teams using their APIs. IBM answered help tweet requests well after midnight! Nice.

MakerBot at the PCH table. I like Bots and I cannot lie!

MakerBot at the PCH table. I like Bots and I cannot lie!

3. It’s always ok to speak up about the direction your project is heading. The worst thing you can do to someone at a time-based event is to waste his or her time. The clock is your biggest competitor. Potential teammates should have an open and honest conversation about goals and what he/she can bring to the table. Over the years I’ve seen teams dissolve and new ones form nearly half-way through the contest. Sometimes that works out, but often it doesn’t. Also, if you want to be the leader or have a certain role on the team then be upfront about it. Your fellow teammates are just that, teammates! One of the biggest reasons I’ve seen teams split: someone got drunk on a little taste o’ power.

Warning: Watch out for freeloaders, there are actually people who just want free stuff (like robot kits and giveaways) or even worse free coding for an unsuccessful product they already have. If someone comes to you with an idea that’s already in process, it’s ok to be skeptical.

4. Take a break every few hours whether you think you need it or not. You do need it. Trust me. This is your Hack-Mom speaking! Ha! The hours between 11pm and 4am go by the fastest. You can look up and not even realize you’ve had not ONE glass of water to drink all night. Zoning out whilst looking at logo concepts or lines of code is not the winningest strategy. I’ve actually seen developers fall down while getting up from their chairs because their legs fell asleep. That’s not good, man! Drink water and take breaks, it’s fine.

Many of us ladies napped in the IBM booth, thanks IBM!!!! :)

Many of us ladies napped in the IBM booth, thanks IBM!!!! 🙂

5. Phone a friend. It’s absolutely ok to do that. I had a few conversations with key people before I went this weekend. With Arduino kit in hand I knew I wanted to do a hardware project. That’s not how it ended up working out this time, but I know some very smart people that were on standby to help me navigate through any problems that I had or those I was working with had. Teamwork is one of the biggest benefits of participating in a Hackathon. You can get so much more done when you don’t waste time on what you don’t need to!

Thanks to PCH for the awesome support and my ticket. 🙂

Also, kudos to TechCrunch for really doing a great job of attracting some amazing talent and lots of young folk. Just like the Catalina Wine Mixer, ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN!  Ladies ruled this Hackathon and I loved it!