MapQuest Developer Blog

How to Win a Hackathon - A Judge's Perspective

This year, MapQuest has been lucky enough to participate in many nationally recognized hackathons, as both sponsors and judges. As Product Manager for our Developer Services team, I took some notes throughout each hackathon to find consistent themes across winning teams. Here's how to win:

1. The best demo wins, nothing else really matters

Winning teams build a one- to two-minute demo that runs properly and shows original ideas and value to the end user. They carefully build and practice the demo while they are developing the application. Throughout judging, we saw many teams spend too much time on long introductions or unnecessary technical details, leaving little or no time for the actual demo; it's best to simply state the use case, explain the technology used and launch into the demo.

Pro-tip: memorize and time the presentation several times during the night as the application changes.

Judges and audience members tend to be biased toward pretty and modern user interfaces. If an ugly or confusing user interface masks great technology, then no one will be able to look past the rough edges.

2. The demo must be real

Code must run, and no screenshots or conceptual bits are allowed. Many hackathons require that your code be posted on the official hackathon website for review. Yet even if your code is not posted somewhere, the judges will usually take a peek at what's going on behind the scenes. Faking a demo is about the worst crime you can commit in the developer community.

3. Form a strong team early

You should spend most of your time at the beginning of the hackathon building a strong team. Form a consensus on the big issues. Everyone should agree on a development ecosystem and decide how to divvy up the work from there. Will you use agile techniques? Which tools you will use? Make early design decisions around the look and feel for the demo. Remember that for a time constrained project like a hackathon, "the perfect is the enemy of the good."

4. Watch the clock

Have some checkpoints throughout the hackathon. If you feel you are behind schedule, start pulling features out. Remember: everyone on the team should be sharing the workload – a lone superstar is not very effective for hackathons. Remind your team that you will need more time than you imagine to practice and polish the demo.

5. Zig when others zag

Each hackathon will have a few extremely popular technologies that most teams will focus on (robots, voice response units, drones, etc.). We suggest picking a less popular technical focus or combining a couple of technologies. At larger events, judges can review up to 150 demos – your goal is to stand out and stand out well. You need to be different to be remembered.

6. Leverage the sponsors

Most hackathons have prizes for the best overall demo, as well as prizes for using specific sponsor vendor applications, tools or services. It's okay to combine some sponsor apps to double or triple your chances. You might even win two prizes! Be sure to hang out with the sponsor's technical teams. Not only can they help you understand their APIs hardware or documentation, but they may also suggest clever use cases for their technologies. Take advantage of their help! Check back during the night to see if you are on the right track. If you get to know the sponsors they will remember you during the judging and may root for you!

7. Don't let other surrounding technology overshadow your solution

If your solution involves compelling new technology (i.e. robots or drones), keep in mind that most people in the audience will fixate on the new hardware, especially if they have never seen it before. If you must work with flashy technology make sure your demo is the star, not the hardware. Conversely, if you are building hardware, try to clean up loose wires and connections to make it look more like a finished product.

8. It's not all about winning

Hackathons are inspiring and competitive, but remember: you don't have to win to have fun. Take the time to network, meet new people and explore new technologies. A one-minute demo in front of your peers and a panel of judges is a great way to learn how to be persuasive, get your point across and prove yourself within the industry. You'll need all those skills at your future startup!

MapQuest is a proud guest technology partner at the Denver Broncos Tackle STEM Colorado All-Stars Hackathon this weekend, November 18-20. We will be opening up our APIs and SDKs, answering questions, mentoring teams, handing out tons of free swag and giving away an awesome best-selling, Wi-Fi camera drone for each team member of the winning MapQuest team. It's not too late to register – sign up here!