My First-time (Virtual) Hackathon Experience

Photo From Unsplash by Annie Spratt

Have you ever joined a hackathon?

A week ago, my answer would have been no, even though I have been a full-time developer for more than 5 years. The thought of spending the whole weekend not sleeping and only coding scared me. I love my sleep! That, and the fact that I don’t know anyone who has participated in a hackathon, discouraged me.

Like many people, I have been reading about Bitcoin, Ethereum, and blockchain-related information lately. I have read a few whitepapers, learnt about smart contracts and decentralised finance, and studied liquidity pools, impermanent loss, yield farming, etc. Down the road, I found out more. There is this thing called NFT. And oh, it’s so cool that you can prove your ownership of digital art now! How are they made? Hmm, Solidity seems similar enough to JavaScript. Let me learn it! After all, I’m a programmer.

Blockchain ignited a dormant part of me. It was like 2001 all over again. When I was in primary school, I liked to sit in front of the computer after school to make websites with Microsoft FrontPage while other children were taking their piano lessons. I was too young to build something long-lasting to contribute to the Internet back then. This time, I feel the same excitement for blockchain and I don’t want to miss out.

When I saw the NFTHack by ETHGlobal, I signed up despite being intimidated by the thought of spending my weekend in an intense, sleep-deprived environment. I am based in Hong Kong and the event was held in the US time zone, so I knew my sleep schedule would be turned upside down.

As a first-timer, I had many preconceptions about hackathons. I thought in a hackathon, every participant would be an expert in the space. I thought no one would sleep during the hackathon. I thought everyone would deliver a polished, finished product…. I didn’t have any experience so I took internet rumours or even Hollywood portrayals as the “should-bes”. In hindsight, I should have known better because I know that programmers don’t spend 1 second typing out full screen’s worth of scripts and changing scripts on 4 monitors in 10 seconds before they escape the building with guns.

My Expectations vs Reality

✔ You’ll see great ideas and execution
I was looking forward to seeing creative and complex technical solutions and there they were! There were many fun projects created during the Hackathon, from dApps for celebrities to sign their autograph and mint it as an NFT, to AR/VR artwork. Go and have a look at the list of projects if you are interested.

✔ Great events to broaden your horizons
Yes! The organiser did a fantastic job. There were people from the tech industry who I did not know were involved or interested in blockchain — for example, Dylan Field, the CEO and co-founder of Figma was one of the speakers. I am a fan of Figma because of their great product with a seamless UX experience. It delights me to know that people at the forefront of the more well-established startup scene are taking blockchain technology seriously. Another speaker that surprised me was Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park. He was talking to several artists about how the big labels are considering working with artists on releasing NFTs. The rapper LATASHÁ shared her experience in minting and selling NFTs and the impact of NFTs on her work. It was intriguing to hear from them to understand how NFTs are changing the creative and entertainment industry landscape.

✔ You’ll learn how much you actually know
You get to hear people in the space talking about what they think of the latest trends and their vision for products yet to be built out. I was glad to realise that I understood what they were discussing. It was basically a free virtual conference for the community. I didn’t expect it before joining the hackathon but I was very excited while listening to their chats.

✔ Sleep deprivation
Sadly, yes. I had about 6 hours of sleep per day. Due to the time difference, I was sleeping at 3 am, 4 am, and even 5:30 am at the end of the event. After getting up, I would spend 12+ hours coding every day, so I was exhausted.

Everyone is a programmer
Some people didn’t know how to code, and that’s okay. You don’t have to be a programmer to join a hackathon. Some people are good at coming up with project ideas and details; some others at pitching and marketing; some people are strong designers that can visualise concepts quickly with infographics, illustrations, or UI design. I was super impressed by Justin Shenkarow’s pitch. People may say giving a pitch is easy, however, I would argue that not everyone could deliver such a high-quality pitch and that his contribution is as significant as the other team members.

It is an often neglected fact that there are many types of work behind a successful prototype or product. As long as you are good at what you do, you will be a valuable asset to the team. But of course, expect hackathon participants to have at least two different kinds of skills because people interested in these type of events would most likely have a certain level of creativity and business sense. If you don’t have strong technical skills, or good business sense, or in-depth knowledge of the industry relevant to the hackathon, it would be hard to make any contribution in such a short amount of time.

You’ll have lots of geeky chats and make many new friends
I didn’t meet anyone outside of my team even though I wanted to. During this virtual hackathon, I was talking to teammates whenever I was available. There were not convenient encounters to mingle. I imagine it would be much easier to make friends at an in-person hackathon because you could grab a coffee or just say hi when you walk past someone. It is difficult to recreate the same experience virtually. One of the possible ways is for the organiser to block out some time for everyone to socialise. But in practice, it would be hard to execute because people might want to skip the session to work on their project instead during the hackathon.

Everyone is excited about building things
Here is the sad reality. Some people are opportunists who were there hunting for people to work for them or to steal ideas. I believe most people in the world are kind and wonderful. However, there are also people with ulterior motives who wouldn’t mind exploiting people around them to benefit themselves.

I deem it unavoidable to have this kind of hackathon participant because they exist, and they are deceitful. People generally spend a short amount of time assessing someone’s skills before making an accept/decline decision while forming a team. The difficulty of determining someone’s personality and intentions in a rush could make people bestow trust on the opportunists. This could lead to suboptimal team dynamics and project execution, but I would say it is just the way it is. The better alternative is to join the hackathon with people you already trust and work well with. It would probably remove potential blockers you would otherwise have with a stranger and make the experience more pleasant.

I enjoyed my first hackathon!

Overall, the experience was definitely worth the sleep deprivation. I was happy to participate in this fun hackathon. The only regret I had was that I didn’t get the time to make more new friends. I supposed I can always message people on discord to say hi and to express my admiration for their projects but making friends virtually is less fun than meeting people in real life. It is impossible to replace a casual and friendly face-to-face chat with paragraphs of text. Though if the event was not virtual, it would have been held in either the US or Europe, so I would have hesitated to attend due to the cost of flying and accommodation. I guess this is a matter of how to recreate the face-to-face experience in a virtual event. I would love to be in a seamless social experience while attending a virtual event. For now, I’d say organisers everywhere are probably still trying to figure it out.

Have you joined any hackathon before? Feel free to share your experience in the comments! :)

Thanks to Thomas Upfield for reading the drafts.

Front-end developer. I ❤ CSS & JavaScript. My brain occasionally runs out of memory so I need to pen down my thoughts.

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