Hack-a-thons: What to Expect and How to Prepare

2014 Winning Build4STL Team

Anyone who’s attended a hack-a-thon will know a little about the benefits of attending and how to get the most out of the 48 concentrated hours of work to come this weekend. But if you’ve never participated in a hack-a-thon before, you might not realize what a life-changing experience it can be, or you might be worried that your skills won’t be utilized in your team. Never fear: at a hack-a-thon, you’ll find lots of people with varying skill sets, eager to adopt a cause and work toward a solution.

The first thing to keep in mind is that we encourage complete strangers to form teams together. We don’t want you to pursue a project you find less interesting just because you’ll be in a group with a friend. Last year, the team formation period began with an issue brainstorming session. Then we worked our way down the list of issues and signed up anyone who raised a hand to say it appealed to him or her. Issues with insufficient volunteers signed up were crossed off the list, and anyone committed to those issues was asked to commit to another issue. We ended up with four teams of people who barely knew each other, and they learned on the fly how to combine their complementary skills to create awesome final prototypes.

Another thing to remember is that not everyone in the room is a coding expert–and even the coding experts need their non-coding team members for problem-solving, brainstorming, research, design, topic expertise, and more. Don’t feel intimidated if some attendees start their introductions with descriptions of the languages and libraries with which they’re most familiar. Your skills are valuable, especially if they’re unique.

A key advantage of the diversity of skills in a hack-a-thon is the availability of mentors for anyone learning a new skill. If you hear someone say that he or she has worked with a specific language or technology and you want to learn more about it, feel free to introduce yourself. If you find yourself exercising a new skill within your team, let the organizers know where an expert could help. We can put a call out on Twitter for other attendees to see if they’re interested in a little code-checking session.

The most important thing to do when you find yourself in a team is to offer ways that your skills can benefit the project. Don’t count on your teammates to find things for you to do: only you know where your strengths lie, so when you see an opportunity to contribute, don’t hesitate to take on a task or invent a way you can expand on the project.

The 2013 winning team is a perfect example of how complementary skill sets and strangers combine to make great projects. The team, with members who specialize in public policy, voice recognition, civic issues, and software development, created an automated prototype of the city’s shelter bed reservation phone system. Now working together as The Continuum Group, they describe one of their key members on their website:

“Near the start of the event, we formed a team to build something to help homeless people in St. Louis. As we tried to flesh out what our concept would look like in real life, in walked James Ware. 13 years ago, James was homeless. He challenged us to look beyond our conceptions of homelessness and the shelter system and meet the real and pressing needs of people whose daily life is on the streets.”

Here are a few simple things you can do to prepare: