Hacking the Hackathon

On January 25th, 2017, Cornell kicked off the world’s first animal health hackathon, and I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of its participants. As a sophomore studying Information Science along with Applied Economics and Management, I thought my skills would translate well to the competition, although I had reservations; many students I’ve spoken to about hackathons are quick to tell me how many they’ve been to or show off the collection of shirts they’ve accumulated over the years. I wondered if my skills would stack up.

In the end, my team placed first in the service vertical, winning a prize of $1,000. More importantly, however, I can say that I played a valuable role on my team in coding the database and front-end, and leading our business development. I learned, I taught, and I continued the cycle as my teammates and I developed our idea even after the weekend ended.

After such a great experience, I wonder what would have happened had I let my reservations prevent me from registering. To encourage other people to engage with entrepreneurship via the hackathon, I’ve prepared my top tips for a first-time hacker below:

1) Come prepared to pitch.

Me pitching at the hackathon

At most hackathons, participants are asked to submit any potential ideas they have as part of their application so they can pitch and look for teammates. In the case of the Animal Health Hackathon, that meant more than 25 people getting up to talk about their ideas. What I soon learned, however, was that the rest of the audience needed to be ready to pitch as well. Competitive is not the word I would use to describe joining teams at a hackathon, but it can be hectic. I found it difficult to find a team that I both believed in and that went out of its way to try and bring me on board. After 20 minutes of getting nowhere, I thought about what value I could add to a team based on my background and consolidated that into an elevator pitch for why I should be brought on a team. Within 5 minutes of doing that, I found my team and was off to the races.

2) When they say hackathons are meant to bring together diverse skill sets, they mean it.

On my team, everyone brought something different to the table, which allowed us to work on different tasks and drive our project forward over the course of the weekend. More importantly, I came into the weekend as an Information Science major primarily hoping to add value from a technological perspective (i.e. coding, doing front-end design, etc.). As one of the few participants also pursuing an Applied Economics and Management major, however, I was able to bring a unique business perspective that helped my team understand our product design. I say this because although hackathons are often heavily composed of Computer Science majors (roughly ⅓ in the case of the Animal Health Hackathon), all participants who are passionate about their work can contribute major value.

3) The presentation is just as important as the product.

One approach that my team took that was different from a lot of other teams is that we had at least one person researching our business model at all times. While we wanted our product to be stellar, we also wanted to be sure we could explain the market we were addressing. We knew that the competition was about making the product, but we also knew that the judges would be evaluating us on how well we could present it. In splitting our time equally between developing our product and building the business behind it, we distinguished ourselves in the presentation round.

For more on how you can get involved in hackathons at Cornell, click here.