Making TreeHacks Your First (And Not Last) Hackathon: The All-You-Can-Read Survival Guide

You’ve entered a strange world.  Everything in it looks familiar (unless you go to school in the Northeast, in which case the palm trees might be a little foreign), but it behaves quite differently. Time seems to pass irregularly, ebbing and flowing at random. Evolution must have pulled some switcheroos, as the people here are decidedly more centered on a few key traits than what you’re used to. Your senses are heightened.  For the moment, though, it’s all fun and games. And if you do it right, it will continue to be.

No, you’re not dreaming, and no, you’re not in some parallel universe.

You are at TreeHacks, your first hackathon.

If you’ve never hacked at a hackathon before, no doubt your first will bring some surprises. Hackathons aren’t exactly par for the course that is a college student’s life. Trying to find somewhere else that will house you, feed you, and give you more swag than you can carry for an entire 36 hours will probably result in a pretty fruitless search (if you’re wondering how exactly that’s possible, it’s all because of our awesome sponsors!  Check them out at http://www.treehacks.com!)  Looking for a place with the same density of computer programming talent and nerdy camaraderie will, in all likelihood, be equally futile.  But it’s all part of the magic.  Hackathons can be an incredible experience – just ask any college student who moonlights as a hackathon hacker, and they’ll launch into a long list of why they love what they do.  In time, you’ll get there too (if you haven’t already!).  We know that the first time around can be a whirlwind, though.  With that in mind, here’s your complete hackathon survival guide.

PREPARATION (or, an oddball packing list)

Luckily, hackathons are pretty easy to prepare for.  There’s the essentials:

  1. Your computer. As it turns out, it’s pretty hard to hack without one of these. And in case I need to say it, desktops are very much not advised.
  2. Whatever you want to plug in to your computer. If you’re a mouse person, bring it! If you’re an external keyboard person, have a ball (preferably a ball that fits in your backpack)! If you’re an external monitor (read: “big screen”) type of person, I might kindly advise restraining yourself. But hey, I’m not a cop.
  3. Whatever else you hack with. Picture yourself going to work on a long project or essay, and you’ll know what you need.
  4. Phone charger, preferably of the USB type. Not only will this help you if you decide to build an app, it’ll come in handy in case access to electrical outlets gets tight.
  5. Any hardware you want to hack on – arduinos and the like are definitely encouraged!

And then there’s the other stuff:

  1. Things having to do with sleep. Personally, I’m a blanket-and-the-floor type of guy, but I’ve also been known to fall asleep on large rocks, logs, and just about every moving vehicle in existence. The bottom line is, have a plan, and make it adaptable. Treat it like camping, if you want. Also, odds are you’ll be sleeping at some interesting times of the day and night, and that other people won’t necessarily be doing the same.  So if you’re one of those people that needs absolute silence and darkness to get some shuteye, bring a mask and some earplugs.
    1.  If you want to know more about hackathon sleeping, read this! 
  2. Clothes. This isn’t Stanford’s fashion week, but it’ll nice to have a change or two, especially right before judging starts.  Also make sure to have some layers and warmth – believe me when I say your body is not used to producing heat at 4 in the morning.
  3. Toiletries.  Just because you’re hacking doesn’t mean you can forget personal hygiene, ya filthy animal.  And even something small like brushing your teeth can make you feel like a new person when you need it most.

That should do it!  One more tip: try to keep your bag on the smaller side.  We promise we won’t try to sardine everyone, but 500 college kids in one place can only mean so much free space.  Bringing less will make your physical footprint a little smaller, and will give you less stuff to keep track of so you can keep your focus on hacking!

ARRIVING AT TREEHACKS (or, more nerds than you’ve ever seen in one place)

However you’re getting to the hackathon, you should do at least two things while en route:

  1. Brainstorm ideas for what to hack on.  If you can’t come up with anything, don’t sweat it – it’s not totally abnormal to only settle on an idea an hour or two in.  But knowing exactly what you’re going after when hacking starts will allow you to dive right in.
  2. SLEEP.  Like, as much as possible.  Depending on how hard you go during the hackathon, trust us, you’re going to need it.
    1. SLEEP.  Seriously.

When you get to Stanford, point yourself towards the Arrillaga Alumni Center.  Don’t just search for “Arrillaga” because, as any Stanford student will tell you, half our buildings are named that.

And now, for the fun part – the hackathon! When you get there, in all likelihood, it’ll be a little bit of a hot mess. Don’t worry, things will calm down as everybody settles in to their hacking.  Find the registration tables, wait in line a little, get checked in and get some swag, and then get ready!  Wander around, pick a table, and start getting set up to hack. People will be milling around, and you should too!  Make some new friends!  Say hi to some old ones!  Go check out the awesome sponsor companies – they’ll be able to give you the lowdown on any API’s they might have for you to hack on, or other cool things that could come in handy later. Worst comes to worst, you’ll probably come out of your sponsor tour with some free swag, and maybe a contact to hit up for an internship after the hackathon ends.

Eventually, make your way to the opening ceremony.  You’ll know it’s time because everybody else will be doing it!

HACKING (or, ironically the part about which I can give you the least amount of helpful advice)

This one’s mostly on you.  You’ve got 36 hours, go for it!  Try to pick a project that’ll be manageable, but challenging. Part of the fun of hackathons is learning something new!  Bonus points for projects that have good divisions of labor. Picking something that requires every piece to be built out in succession won’t make maximum use of the fact that you have a team to work with. Projects that have pieces that can be worked on in parallel are oftentimes better. Either way, find some form of version control and collaboration to use. Personally, I’d recommend github but use whatever you feel best on! And if you get stuck on a problem, take advantage of the mentorship system we’ll have in place to get help from someone who really knows their stuff.

While you’re hacking, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Eat when you need to, sleep when you need to. You’ll be surprised at how much more quickly you’ll solve problems when you’re fully alert and awake. Tracking down a missing semicolon can be just about impossible when you’re tired, and finding flaws in your logic will be miserable. You’ll make much shorter work of both when you’re rested, even if it’s only a short nap.

As far as sleeping (and yes, you’ll have to do it at least once during a 36 hour hackathon): sleeping at a hackathon is an art unto itself.  Suffice to say, make sure you do it.  For more tips, go here!

FINISHING UP (or, more scrambling than a plate of eggs)

It’s the 11th hour (or 35th, as it were), and things are (hopefully) just about finished.  Towards the end of the hackathon, you’ll want to start thinking about judging.  If you’re going for prizes, you’ll want to concentrate on the functionality that you’ll be able to show the judges. Nobody expects your hack to be perfect, but “Look what my app does!” goes a longer way than “It probably could do this, if we hadn’t spent 6 hours getting that div to line up a pixel to the right” (although don’t underestimate the appeal of showing where your app will go, given a little more time).

Old man Murphy can (and probably will) be a bit of a pain. If you’re like most people, the last few hours are where anything and everything will crash, maybe on the merge of various pieces.  For that reason, leave a little extra time for bringing the parts of your project together. And if it happens, don’t worry!  Do your best to sort everything out, but if you can’t, showing the separate pieces of your project to the judges isn’t the worst thing in the world.  This is also where tools like github come in handy.  If a stretch goal code change crashes everything, you can always revert back to your working version relatively painlessly.

Lastly, don’t forget to submit!  Get your hack out there!  Show the world!  Chances are, it’s pretty cool. 🙂  And putting it up on challengepost will leave a permanent trace for you to refer back to on things like resumes.

BREATHING (or, everything else that you haven’t done for the past 5-36 hours)

You should do this. You may not have a lot of time, but take a few seconds to relax. You’re done with your first hack (and almost your first hackathon!).  Be proud!  Whether you came a little short of your initial goals, or your hack turned out to be more than you could have ever dreamed of, rest easy for a few seconds.  Coding for as long as you have is no easy feat!

EXPO (or, thought you were bug free?  Nope.)

Get ready to show your hack off!  By this point, you’re probably going to be tired.  Maybe hungry.  Maybe both.  Keep it together, you’re almost there!  Set up wherever you’re assigned at the tables, and hang out.  When the judges come up to you, just show them what you’ve done.  Believe that what you’ve done is cool, and it’s that much more likely to come off as such.  If your hack freaks out as you’re showing the judge, don’t sweat it, just refresh and go for it again.  I find it best to keep your demo to a specific set of actions that you know will work well.  But hey, if you get the sudden urge to go rogue, I won’t stop you!

CLOSING CEREMONY AND DEMOS (or, how the heck did they do that…?)

Eventually, judging will come to a close.  Top projects will be picked.  If you’re one of them, congratulations!  Keep doing your thing!  If not, sit tight and chill.  Watch the top demos – they’ll be pretty good hacks, and might even inspire you for a future project.

AND FINALLY…HEADING HOME (or, your bed never felt this good)

Bask in the glow that comes with finishing your first hackathon. Sleep!  It may take a day or two to feel normal again, but that’s fine.  Wear your TreeHacks shirt the next day because, hey, your earned it!  And start looking for your next hackathon adventure.

See you at TreeHacks!

MORE RESOURCES:

These are some resources compiled by the TreeHacks team.  By no means do you have to read all or even any of them!

A. READINGS:

B. SETTING THINGS UP:

C. LEARNING THINGS

Even more resources…from text editors to wireframe tools to web hosting

Post by Alex Bertrand

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