How to Crush Your First Hackathon

By Liz Eggleston
Last updated on December 12, 2016


If you want to get tons of coding experience in 24 hours (or you just want your resume to stand out), then you should already be thinking about hackathons! These are 24-48 hour events where programmers meet to create new products that usually answer a problem. And coding bootcamp graduates know a thing or two about participating in (and winning) hackathons. So we asked two bootcamp grads from California bootcamp Sabio to share their tips on crushing their first hackathons and how they even helped the alums land interesting jobs. Gema and Ken share their experiences, give us advice on preparing for a successful hackathon, and explain the importance of hackathons for growth as a developer.

Takeaways for crushing your first hackathon:

  • If you don’t know your hackathon team, jump on Skype before the hackathon to get the introductions out of the way.
  • You may not know anything about the topic at hand; in that case, crowdsource for ideas and feedback from your Facebook feed.
  • When building out your hackathon team, choose a team leader, and always have both Front End and Back End Developers on your team.
  • Agree on the application you will build and it’s functionality in advance.
  • Work on an aspect of the project you enjoy - you’re going to be coding all night!
  • Include your hackathon experiences on your resume and LinkedIn profile- employers will want to chat about these.
  • Remember that hackathons are generally very open, inclusive, and welcoming- so don’t be afraid to dive into your first hackathon!


What you were up to before you went to Sabio?

Ken: Prior to Sabio I had an internship as a Tailor in Beverly Hills and was between furthering my experience in Graphic Design or Fashion. I had never competed in a Hackathon prior to Sabio.

Gema: Before Sabio, I was studying to take the LSAT and was on my way to law school. But I always found myself enjoying the logic games in LSAT prep. My husband, who is a project manager in tech, suggested that I look deeper into programming. As I learned more, programming awoke my hunger for challenges, logic, and processing problems differently. I quit my job in April 2015, spent a month studying on my own, started Sabio in May, and had two job offers before I graduated.

There are several coding bootcamps in Southern California- why choose Sabio?

Ken: Frankly, I have my brother to thank for getting me involved with technology through Sabio. He went to Sabio, and his positive experience led me to join eventually.

Gema: I did a lot of research and looked into what a few bootcamps offered. General Assembly was the first coding bootcamp I heard about, so I went to a coding session at General Assembly, applied and got accepted. Then I went to an info session at Sabio, I was so impressed with how Sabio made me feel. When I met Gregorio and Liliana, they gave me realistic salary expectations and made me feel like a human being. They tell it like it is.

Preparing for a Hackathon

How did Sabio prepare you for your first hackathon? Were you surprised?

Ken: The curriculum truly encapsulates all aspects of object oriented programming. Sabio provides an excellent foundation for eager pupils. This foundation makes any challenge feel familiar.

Gema: Sabio is basically a three-month long hackathon! There’s an expectation that you’ll put in as many hours as possible, when you’re not sleeping, showering, or eating. Of course, you need to sleep in order to learn and process those three months.

The Sabio curriculum is based around one major project, which is similar to a real-world experience. In a hackathon, you want your project to be as simple as possible; a minimum viable product that you build in one or two days. But the challenge is similar.

How much did Sabio stress that you should participate in Hackathons?

Gema: So much! Gregorio and the other instructors come to hackathons to mentor us and are often available on through Skype throughout the weekend, helping us when we get stuck and providing guidance. That mentorship is key for people starting at their first hackathons. The fact that the co-founder of Sabio is there, willing to help, is one of the reasons I chose Sabio. Gregorio has so much experience in the industry, so he’s able to help us get through roadblocks quickly. For me, that was a huge value-add.

They also sponsored my team to go to New York for the Barclay Bank hackathon.

Ken: Very much so. I had the privilege of seeing the success of some of Sabio’s earliest members which has always been a motivation for me to compete at any stage.  

What makes the perfect hackathon team? How do you create an effective group?

Ken: YOU DO!

Gema: Ideally, you want team members who excel in different parts of the application: front end, middle, and back end. The great thing about Sabio is that we all graduate trained in all parts of an application. Even though we may prefer a certain area, we have the skills to work on anything. Getting to know each other's skills and compromising is important.

The next consideration is to try to assign your team members to work on something that they’ll enjoy. Because if you’re going to be coding all night without sleeping, you better be enjoying what you’re writing!

When there are a lot of Sabio alumni at a hackathon, Gregorio helps make those decisions and sets up our teams for us. But when we attend a hackathon on our own (for example, the NYC Barclay Bank), we figured that out on our own.

The Hackathon Experience

Which Hackathons have you participated in?

Ken: I did not compete in any Hackathons during my bootcamp, but I was a mentor for the youth groups at WeHack, which was a hackathon hosted by Sabio to build tech to make lives better for Angelenos.

Gema: I’ve done three hackathons, and the first was on the weekend of my Sabio graduation (I started work on Monday)! I did the AT&T Hackathon, a Barclay Bank Hackathon, and VetsHack.

My team won first place at our first hackathon – the AT&T Hackathon – by building a super cool application called BikeMonkey. It was like a AAA for bikers that engages other bikers in the community to come to each other’s aid.

What was the secret to winning that hackathon?

Gema: This was our first hackathon and we were all very inexperienced, so we didn’t get too much planning done before. We had agreed on the application we would build and it’s functionality, but there was a lot that we couldn’t get done because of the time limit.

At the second hackathon I did, Sabio flew our team of four to New York for the Barclay Bank hackathon, and we got second place (plus we won drones)! The purpose was to get people without bank accounts interested in personal banking. Before that hackathon, we jumped on Skype, chose a theme, narrowed down what our application would do, planned out specs, and decided what we needed which API’s we needed to learn to be successful. For example, we talked about using Bitcoin, but at the time, I had no idea how to use Bitcoin, so I did research on that beforehand. We had to identify our learning curve to be prepared.

Once I was a more experienced hackathon-er, I knew that we needed to plan even more before our third hackathon, which was VetsHack. I made a point to have our team meet beforehand, because even though Sabio is a tight community, our hackathon team was made up of students from different cohorts, so it was helpful to get through the awkward first meeting. Once we got to the hackathon, we already had introductions out of the way and we could start coding right away. We planned specifically what our presentation would look like, and then built what we needed for a successful presentation. As the weekend went on, we could easily add to that minimum product.

Ken: I start by coming up with a unique idea, and from there I work on the interface. Hackathon judges are interested in an idea and a vision, so don’t get too holed into functional details of your app.

Gema: Idea and vision are one large part of a hackathon, but being able to demo code will also be HUGE to winning. I have seen many great ideas at hackathons that didn’t win anything because they didn’t have anything to demo.

Could you give us examples of a project that you built in a Hackathon?

Ken: Maker Draper is an app that serves as a database and dashboard for people who build crafts, especially for those that create garments. The biggest lesson I learned in the second hackathon I won is that novel ideas count for a lot. There were many people with much more functionality to their app, however I won this one based on a good looking interface and a novel idea. It surprised me too!

Gema: We got second place at VetsHack, by building an application that connects veterans via “missions” to create a sense of brotherhood at home that veterans have overseas. The purpose was to give veterans the sense of being a hero at home by helping the community.

What if you don’t know anything about the focus of the hackathon – like what if you don’t have personal experience with veterans, but you’re doing the VetsHack hackathon?

Gema: I ran into this at the VetsHack hackathon. I don’t have veterans in my family and I don’t know specifically the problems they’re facing. I went on Facebook and asked if any of my friends knew veterans who would jump on the phone with me. In fact, the application that we were originally planning was an app for a veteran himself to post and create a mission. But after discussing that with a friend, she said, “I don’t see my brother or any of his veteran friends using that; they always feel like someone else had a tougher experience and deserves help more than they do, so they aren’t very likely to ask for help.” After talking to her, we flipped the application idea around, and made the app more accessible to veterans themselves.

I imagine that walking into a Hackathon is a bit nerve-wrecking. How did you get the courage to do your first Hackathon?

Ken: Participating in a hackathon gives me the familiar sensation of competing in a sport. I had the privilege of playing sports into my college years, so I enjoy that competition. I just did it. You’ll be in competition with the other groups at the hackathon, so don’t expect to receive too much support from them, but people are generally kind in my experience.

Were you able to talk about your hackathon experience when you were applying to jobs?

Gema: There’s nothing more gratifying than being at a job interview and talking about a specific project that you made at a hackathon; employers want to see that you’re not only engaged at work, but also that you’re interested in tech beyond your job. They want to see that you’re not just going to work 9am to 5pm, but also that you’ll code on the weekends and win hackathons and get better.

Ken: I’ve continuously built on the experience of my first hackathon to continue building sites for companies.

Did you include your hackathon projects in your portfolio or resume?

Gema: Hackathons are literally the first thing on my resume, because that’s what makes me different from other applicants. I include which hackathon I attended and if I placed in the hackathon. I don’t explain the entire application on my resume, but employers definitely bring that up in the interview. Showing that you’re passionate about building new tech is important.

On LinkedIn, I include my hackathon projects under the “Projects” section.

What’s next for you, Gema?

Gema: I quit my first developer job in July, because although I was getting a lot of experience, I wasn’t continuing to grow. I’m too young to not be constantly learning, and I could see some gaps in my computer science fundamentals. I spent three months ramping up and filling those gaps on my own. Then I was accepted to a Microsoft apprenticeship in Seattle! In January, I’ll start working on the Bing team and I’m really excited. They’re working with tools that I’ve never seen before, but because I showed them that I could take the initiative to learn, study, and progress on my own, Microsoft is giving me a shot at an internship.

What are you up to now, Ken?

Ken: I’m a UI/UX and Marketing Coordinator at SwoopIn, a location-based social networking app. My position involves UI/UX consulting and increasing awareness about the SwoopIn app through building relationships and creating events.

What’s you advice to other coding bootcampers about hackathons?

Ken: Stay cool and have a good laugh at the end no matter what.

Gema: First, figure out what the hackathon is really about and prep as much as you can. Then, get your team together- or show up on your own and join a team once you get there! People who go to hackathons are very open, inclusive, and welcoming in general. So if you want to get experience with coding or build something, go to a hackathon and I promise it will get done.

Find out more and read Sabio reviews on Course Report. Check out the Sabio website.

About The Author

Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students researching coding bootcamps. Her research has been cited in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, and more. She loves breakfast tacos and spending time getting to know bootcamp alumni and founders all over the world. Check out Liz & Course Report on Twitter, Quora, and YouTube!

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