First Impressions of a Hackathon

Remember that scene in The Social Network when the tech nerds pound beers and code until their fingers go numb? Maybe that depiction is similar to actual coding hackathons but my first simulated version of an “IdeaHack” was not what I expected but everything I wanted. Startup Institute New York’s “IdeaHack” will benefit a national non-profit, MOUSE, to revamp their MOUSESquad platform. We were tasked to map out a more intuitive and responsive platform to make MOUSE more learner-driven and learner-centric. Teams of up to seven will present their proposals o a panel of judges, including the Executive Director, Daniel Rabuzzi.

Initially, I was confused. The goals were a bit unclear but, in hindsight, perhaps this was on purpose. I had no inkling as to how late I would be up working and if we would get this project done and done to our liking. As someone who needs to know how to get results, I was not sure how I was going to get through the next twenty-four hours.

Let the brainstorming begin! Instantly, the office we claimed was covered with large Post-It paper sheets full of our ideas. My team quickly realized we have different personalities and working styles; and we had to get on the same page if we wanted to come up with a successful proposal. Earlier in the week, we reviewed different emotional intelligence exercises to determine how to best work with each other. While it was a bit of a kumbaya moment, knowing how to work with one another set us on the right path for the rest of the hackathon.

My hackathon experience was filled with a varied mix of emotions. Just when we thought we were onto the next big thing, we started talking in circles. Circles became tangents. Tangents became side conversations. Suddenly, thirty minutes passed and we felt like we were back to square one. While we all wanted to get frustrated, it was great to see my team embrace this level of productive discomfort and get to know each other beyond our marketing, web development and product and design skills.

I cannot think of a better way to be thrown into the startup world than with a hackathon. Though, I may have been overwhelmed by the unknown throwing myself into a group proved that with the power of collaboration, we could innovate and produce something truly impressive in twenty-four hours.

Three Tips to Consider When Participating in a Hackathon:

  1. Ride the idea roller coaster. An idea hackathon is an evolution of ideas. To be successful, you have to stay on board and see what unravels.
  2. Get to know your teammates’ strengths and weaknesses.  Learn how to work with your team to not only produce the best product but enjoy each other’s company.
  3. Have fun! The more fun you have, the more creative you can be.


Katie Tilson is a technical marketing student at Startup Institute New York. Katie formerly worked at an international human rights nonprofit doing marketing, fundraising and event planning. When not trying to connect users to innovative products to make the world a better place, she loves to cook and run! Say hello on Twitter, @katietilson.