I participated in my first hack-a-thon – and lost

I participated in my first hack-a-thon – and lost

In October 2015, I had the privilege of participating in my first hack-a-thon ever. Though I had helped organize hack-a-thons and Jugaad-a-thons before, and acted as a mentor and judge in a few of them, I finally had the chance to put my money (rather, time) where my mouth is.

The event was the CAMTech Diabetes Innovation Hack-a-thon, held at the Indian School of Business on October 10 and 11, Saturday & Sunday.

Here’s what I learnt.

Don’t start at 11 pm on Day 1

That’s pushing your luck a lot. You have 30 hours at most to go from need identification to solution design, so time is of essence.

However, do enjoy the entropy of finding good people to work with – without checking your watch every single minute. Once of the winning teams came together after a serendipitous conversation at teatime on Day 1 (Saturday). This was after two of the team members had spent the prior 3 hours working with a different group on an entirely different design.

Play it by the book

We were fortunate enough to make it to the final 12 of 42 teams. One of the reasons was that we had experienced hackers on the team, who decided to play it by the book. What does the good book tell us?

  1. Focus on the problem
  2. Find good mentors – ask them about their problems
  3. Make it personal if you can – does someone on your team identify with the problem too?
  4. Once you lock on a possible solution – validate! Has someone done it before? The answer is most likely yes. If yes, what are the limitations of their solutions? Based on “What is”, you can move to “What if”, “What wows” and finally to “What works”.
  5. Practice your pitch. 30 hours of hard work + 0 minutes of practice pitch = no one gets what you’ve done. 12 hours of solid work + 40 minutes of practice pitch = most of your work is understood by the audience. Don’t shortchange yourself by not practicing your pitch. We did 4 runs. Each one helped.
  6. Your first practice pitch with suck. That’s ok. No one’s perfect. Except Alexis Steel.
  7. If you can, get some rest. Especially recommended for participants over 30, like me. Caffeine and sugar don’t cut it for me anymore – 6 hours of downtime between days 1 and 2 really helps. In general, find the right mix between repose, reflection, rest and going full-throttle.
  8. Don’t pick up stuff from the hacker shop till you know what you’re building. We used 6 pieces of cardboard, a pad of post-its, one marker, and 30 sheets of yellow paper. No, we weren’t building a rocket to Mars.

Be passionate about the problem, don’t get emotional about the solution

Many folks (fellow techies – I’m looking at you here) start with a solution and work back towards a problem. After a while, they get so emotional about the solution that the problem disappears from the picture. I’ve done this twice in real life. Both situations ended up with poor business and technical outcomes.

I remember what Dr. Data Santorino said in the Clinical Summit preceding during Jugaadathon 2014, “Unmet need is your anchor; it saves you on the bad days when your solution seems bound to fail. Find you center based on the problem you’ve set out to solve. It will keep you sane.” I think he pretty  much said it all there.

Clarity about the problem statement allows you to validate it independent from the solution – because the solution can (and will and should) evolve as you move through the hack-a-thon. But keep your focus on the problem.

Enjoy the journey

Winning feels awesome. We were thrilled to make the cut past the semis to the finals. But the ride there was even more fun. I learnt a lot about my teammates, Niraj Gupta, Chetan AC and Bharadwaj Swarna, even though I had known them before we collaborated at the hackathon.

Make friends

You get to see people at their best and worst during the simulated pressure cooker of a hack-a-thon. So find someone who takes to the pressure well and befriend them. They’ll probably make for good friends in real life too.

I’ve come away from the hack-a-thon with tremendous respect for all participants who put themselves out there. This includes the gal who kept it together in front of the judges during the semis, even though she was terrified of speaking in public – if you’re reading this, you know I’m talking about you!

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