Simply showing up at a hackathon and hoping for the best may work out, but it may be unfulfilling, as you may not get everything you are looking for out of it.

Preparing, even just a little bit, ahead of the hackathon can make a huge difference. Here are some tips to get ready for a successful hackathon:

1. Set Goals
Know what you want out of the hackathon, and try to be as explicit as possible. Don’t go into hackathon with the expectation that you will be able to build a fully functioning product for your start up. Your goal should be to have a minimum viable product (MVP) at the end. Most hackathons are 24 – 36 hours long, and you are lucky to have something to demonstrate by the end of it.

2. Networking
Before the coding part of the hackathons starts, take time to network with sponsors and fellow participants. This helps you to understand the rules for sponsor prizes, and what they are bringing to the table at the hackathon and to the market. If you do not already have a team try to find team members who can complete your skill gaps. If you are a developer but cannot design, you need to attract a designer to join your project and vice versa. The best way to attract talented team members is to have a solid pitch ready for your idea. Try to be as detailed as possible with the description and technologies that could be used so that you get the right talent.

3. Use Source Control Management
Yep, even for a hackathon, I highly recommend that you use a source control system, such as git. This is guaranteed to save you from a lot of pain and frustration towards the end as the deadline approaches. Commit early, and commit often. As soon as you have a feature working, commit your changes. You will be able to trace every single change made to your code, and more easily discover the change that broke functionally or introduced a bug. If you are part of a team, use branches, and avoid committing directly to the master branch. You should only commit code to the master when it works. Your master branch should always contain functioning and deployable code.

4. Use Existing Frameworks and Libraries
There are tons of excellent frameworks and libraries available for the programming language and technologies that you are using. Research and learn them before the hackathon, so that you are not struggling with the basics such as how to make HTTP calls, or how to process JSON/XML data.

5. Use a PaaS for deployment and Hosting
Yes, we know about your ninja sysadmin skills, and we know you think you can get things setup much faster if only you had root access to the server, but it will not help you achieve your goal, nor will it help you win at the hackathon. As a developer, your focus must be on writing code and getting your MVP ready for the demo. PaaS offerings, like IBM Bluemix, allow for much faster building, deploying, and testing without the sysadmin overhead.

6. Have Fun!
Remember that you are here to have fun. Even though it is a competition, it is also an opportunity to network with potential employers, meet interesting people, and to learn and build new things.

Planning on using IBM Watson or IBM Bluemix in your next hackathon? See our post on 9 tips for successful hackathon with IBM Watson and IBM Bluemix.

Send us your comments, feedback and any tips you may want to share with others on Twitter @tejasparikh @IBMWatson

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