Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Hackathons

One of the best things you can do for your career may not be what first comes to mind.

It is … drumroll, please … participating in a hackathon. Yes, even if your role doesn’t require technical skills. Yes, even if you don’t work for a tech company. Yes, even if hackathons intimidate you.

Why? Well, these events are no longer just for tech people. In fact, more and more non-tech professionals are showing up at hackathons to both push themselves and to think outside their everyday role.

Take Jacqueline S. She’s preparing to participate in her third “NYL Hack”, an internal employee hackathon at New York Life. Her role is in the business planning and strategy organization, so she doesn’t work directly in technology, yet she participates in the tech-based event.

“I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone, meeting new people—especially in other departments that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” she explains. And Jacqueline isn’t an uncommon case at NYL Hack.

“Each year we see less of an overall percentage of tech employees,” notes Chris R., a non-tech member of the NYL Hack Core Planning Team, explaining that their intention is to bring a broad group of people together to solve a problem and to give participants an opportunity to bring their ideas to the table. “Participants can work on interesting things and meet new people. Our hackathon is very inclusive, not exclusive to the tech department.”

And NYL Hack isn’t alone in welcoming an increasing amount of non-tech participants. Nearly 60 percent of participants in all internally sponsored hackathons are non-technical employees. And this trend is expected to continue. Here’s why you should be part of it.

The Benefits of Participating in a Hackathon

Hackathons are like an extra tasty superfood. Not only are they enjoyable (and not scary), but they also pack in tons of career benefits.

Learn New Skills

“Hackathons allow you to stretch yourself in a way that your day-to-day job may not,” says Kimberly S., also a member of NYL Hack’s Core Planning Team. Both Jacqueline and Nishit S., a big data platform engineer, who attends hackathons as often as he can and helps to plan NYL Hack, have experienced professional growth as a direct result of hackathon participation.

During her first hackathon, Jacqueline attended NYL Hack’s session on pitching, which included practical tips like how to stand while presenting and how to overcome nerves. So, when her team found out they had earned a spot in the top ten and had just two minutes to prepare before presenting in front of judges, other participants, and a guest audience that included high-level members of the company, Jacqueline was ready.

“It was an adrenaline rush to get up and take a microphone to lead a presentation in front of so many people on such short notice. I never knew how much I’d end up loving the thrill of the pitch,” she says.

And, Nishit gets a chance to put his tech skills to use at hackathons, but he also gets to practice communicating his ideas and pitching while learning about new topics.

“I went to a blockchain hackathon before I had known anything about blockchain,” he says, noting that he did read up on the topic prior to the event. “But it doesn’t matter to a hackathon how good you are. Just look at them as a learning opportunity. Go with an open mind and you’ll always learn something.”

Network

“I know so many people who have found jobs from participating in hackathons,” Nishit says. And Kimberly corroborates this.

“Even internal hackathons are an incredible networking opportunity within your own company,” she says. “Members of the winning teams gain visibility, and a few have taken on new roles as a result.” In Jacqueline’s experience, she was exposed to different levels within the organization, from her peers to top executives, but also colleagues from various departments.

Take Risks in a Safe Place

“You get a lot of credit for taking a risk and a new step forward. People are very supportive of that,” Chris explains. And Kimberly notes that these events truly are zero-risk environments.

“The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t win,” she says. “You’re not docked for trying.”

Hackathon Prep Tips

Sold on trying a hackathon? Here are some tips to help you prepare:

Do your homework. Read about the challenges and topics ahead of time. Consider the end-users—the people who’d benefit from the challenges—when considering potential solutions.

Balance the skills on your team. Aim for someone creative, someone with a business or product focus, and someone with coding skills. Know your own strengths and weaknesses and try to find teammates who fill in your gaps.

If your team is short on tech skills, look into off-the-shelf technical solutions that don’t require heavy coding skills ahead of the event. Or teach yourself one of the simpler coding languages like HTML or CSS prior to the event. Bonus: It’s a huge resume booster.

Once you have your team, understand each person’s role and identify a leader who can keep everyone on task and on track.

Attend any related coaching and preparation sessions ahead of the event.

If you’d love to attend a hackathon but would prefer not to start with a public event, then consider leading a grassroots effort to plan your own employer-sponsored internal hackathon. That’s exactly how NYL Hack got started. Here’s how:

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