10 tips for building a winning app at your next hackathon

Hack, Eat, Sleep, Repeat.


Who needs caffeine to stay up for 24 hours when you have a hackathon to help you do it? Highlighting seasoned developers, enthusiastic hackers, endless coding and a competitive atmosphere, hackathons have become the new craze. With sponsors ranging from schools to large tech companies, hackathons are being hosted all over the country on a year-round basis. In the next few weeks, some of the largest hackathons of the year are taking place—the largest of which is the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon in San Francisco, CA. On September 19, hundreds of hackers will gather for over 24 hours of hacking, and they will all have the same goal in mind: to develop the coolest, most innovative hack in a short amount of time. Ultimately, this is the goal of any developer, coder or hacker who enters a hackathon. Whether it’s a full-fledged hackathon event or a friendly online competition, here are 10 tips to building that winning app:

1. Set achievable goals – You can still develop the winning hack without going “all the way.” You may not have a fully functioning product, but as long as the idea and the back-end is in place, you’re in good shape.

2. Network and pick a good team
a. You may have the best idea in the world, but without a team to help you execute, you won’t get very far in a 24-hour time period. Surround yourself with people who:
b. Have the same passion for coding and drive to win
c. Complete your skill gap with expertise in different areas of app development (i.e. front-end dev and business development)
d. Don’t crack under pressure and time deadlines. 
e. Have a similar vision for the end result.
3. Get inspired and let the community help you Research what other hackers have done at previous hackathons. Use their experience, success and failures as building blocks for your own hack. Useful sites include:
      1. DevPost
      2. Watson App Gallery
      3. Hackathon.io
4. Use source control managementControl systems, such as git, will save you pain and frustration towards the end of the hackathon. You will be able to track every change that was made to the code and, in the case of a malfunction, discover the change that broke functionality.

5. Use existing frameworks and librariesDon’t let the basics, such as how to make HTTP calls, hold you back during the hackathon. Do the research beforehand to familiarize yourself with the programming languages and technologies you’ll be using.

6. Leverage example code to accelerate development Chances are there’s a recipe or bit of sample code available that has a similar framework to the hack you had in mind. Don’t recreate the wheel—instead, utilize the knowledge and experience of other coders to accelerate the development process.
      1. Watson Developer Cloud sample code on GitHub
      2. Device and app recipes on developerWorks
      3. Code recipes from AlchemyAPI developers
7. Keep the time in mind! The majority of hackathons are 24-48 hour events with strict timeboxing in place for coding and app development. You need to expect that not everything will be perfect! While you want to develop the best application you can, be realistic in what you can accomplish.

8. Use a PaaS for deployment and hostingWhile you may have superior sysadmin skills, that doesn’t mean you should use them. Given your time limit, it is wise to use a PaaS offering, like IBM Bluemix, to allow you and your team to focus on writing code, building, deploying and testing your app.

9. Don’t forget about your presentationWhether you’re hacking and coding up until the last second, or you have an hour to spare, you must always remember to plan time to prepare for your presentation. In the 60 seconds to five minutes you will have to present to the judges, you want to ensure you highlight all of the requirements and do so in a way that showcases your app.

10. Have fun!Everyone loves a little friendly competition, but don’t let it get in the way of networking and socializing with your peers.

No matter what your next hackathon is, these tips are sure to keep you on the right track towards developing that killer app you’ve dreamed of. Thinking of using IBM Watson for your application? For that extra edge, join us for a webinar where you can learn four simple steps for getting started with Watson on Bluemix, specifically for hackathons. From signing up for Bluemix to accelerating your hack with sample code, you won’t want to miss these tips. Register now to secure your spot.


This post originally appeared on The Alchemist Blog community site.

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