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Level Up Your Skills with a Hackathon!

Are you up for a challenge that stimulates your inner entrepreneur? Maybe a Hackathon is exactly what you’re looking for!

Hackathons are competitions where teams come up with million-dollar business ideas. Within a limited amount of time, ranging from just a few days to only a couple hours, teams sprint to :

  1. design a product or service,

  2. develop a prototype,

  3. draft a presentation and conduct research,

  4. and pitch their idea to a panel of judges all from scratch!

I myself have gone to a few hackathons here and there, but I wanted to know more about the specific skills and takeaways you get out of these competitions from a different, more experienced perspective.

Introducing Eric Zhou. He is a third-year Computer Science student at the University of Toronto Mississauga as well as a seasoned hacker!

Even amongst studies and internships, Eric enjoys spending weekends diving head first into a Hackathon. Undoubtedly, the main attraction is being able to refine and hone your skills in problem solving and quick thinking. Like a muscle, your skills and strategies have to be exercised to be well executed.

One of my main takeaways from our interview were his tips for a successful project, applicable for not just hackathons, but potential start-up businesses as well.

First, find a real world problem/market

  • It all starts with a problem people actually have. This requires research on background information, root causes, competitors, and what solutions already exist.

Ideate on a realistic solution

“Double check if your plan works. Are there any companies or governments that would be able to do it, or even want to do it?”
  • Keeping in mind the team’s skillset, come up with a solution that takes advantage of it. Perhaps one of the event’s sponsors has a specific challenge.

  • A solution may be technically doable, but if it is not profitable or sustainable, no investor will be interested.

All members of the team should be involved and motivated

“Everyone should eagerly want to finish the project. Everyone is fighting for the same goal.”
  • When there seems to be a lack of communication on what needs to be done, the team may fall out of sync. When everyone is working together to their strengths, that’s when a team is able to shine.

Another takeaway is the importance of thinking things through. Doing research on your problem, identifying characteristics, and ensuring originality in your solution, products, or services, is key. But also keeping in mind the long term, being able to adapt and scale to other markets in the future. You also have to be adaptable when given the limited timeframe, but it allows you to see the potential of a flushed out idea. Who knows, your project might inspire you to continue pursuing it afterwards.

Additionally, every experience is something you can learn and grow from. Whether it’s an aspect you could have done better, or something you learned from experiencing a job or multiple hackathons, there’s always an observation you can make to improve for next time.

Hackathons also build confidence by challenging your comfort zone and sparking opportunities. To go from living your everyday life to being challenged to work with new people in new places can seem pretty jarring. But as stressful as it is, it’s also incredibly thrilling!

And even beyond the prizes, hackathons motivate participants through the allure of getting to meet new people and connections, especially since they attract a congregation of creative people, (that’s how I met Eric!). Even though you are competing against each other, at the end, everyone relates to the same shared feeling of anxiety and relief when it’s over. Larger events also lure in large company sponsors who look out for these individuals, whether it be corporations like RBC or General Motors, to take on unique opportunities found nowhere else.

“The guys in computer science are always talking to computers, I want to spend more time talking to humans.”

I was incredibly inspired by Eric’s ambition. Through our conversation, I am more motivated than ever to strengthen my own communication and technical skills in addition to crafting a mindset fit for an entrepreneur. Whether that be learning a new skill from the comfort of my home, or putting myself out in the open at a Hackathon, there’s always something to learn.

Finally, my advice for you, as aspiring entrepreneurs, business owners, and CEOs, is to reach for these valuable opportunities to build both your skills and your network. From interacting with new people, to seeing different styles of leadership, problem solving, and workflow… you truly cannot get that anywhere else! Of course, lots of Hackathons are catered to programmers, but there are a plethora of low or no-code competitions! And the best part, many events are accessible, online, and even free!

And with that, I wish you good luck fellow hackers!


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