Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hackathon Tips from the Trenches

I'm digging up some posts from previous blogs I've written that I think still have value. This is the first in a series. Originally published in 2009.

I participated in the first Idaho Startup Weekend in November 2009 in Boise. Going into it, I had seen some of the youtube videos, read through the website, but I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Here’s the guide I wish I’d had.

1. Be Scrappy

It might be a no-brainer, but one weekend is a ridiculously short amount of time. Whatever best-practice methodology or design patterns or service architectures you use in your day job, chances are they weren’t designed with Startup Weekend in mind. You’ll be working with a team with widely varying backgrounds and technical abilities, and it’s just not worth the time to get everyone up to speed on your favorite buzz word. Get in the mindset of actuallybuilding something as quickly as you can. The code over the weekend is a prototype, a proof of concept. There’s the old software engineering truism, ‘build two to throw one away.’ If you product goes anywhere after the weekend, chances are you’ll be starting over from scratch with the codebase. So don’t fret, just build.

2. Be Snappy

The weekend moves fast, and accelerates as it goes. You want to spend your time building, so get all of the basics out of the way before you leave on Friday. That means have a general product and rough feature list, decide on a name, and register your domain names. Get all of the group consensus stuff out of the way fast, so that everyone can do what they do best.

3. Ubiquitous Capture

All weekend long, you’ll be refining the idea you went in with. My main takeaway is that rapid prototyping, and being forced to talk about your product all weekend, is a pretty amazing form of ideation. Fans of GTD already know this one: ubiquitous capture. You don’t have time to act on all your ideas, or even to properly evaluate if they suck or not. You don’t want this to distract you from building - see number 1. So, ubiquitous capture. Write everything down. Get it out of your head. In the case of my group, we used Google Wave to pretty good effect. By the end of the weekend, we decided to have a go of it, with a pretty solid understanding of our core product and a huge backlog of potential features.

4. Divide & Conquer

As soon as you get into your group, do a quick skills inventory. Discover what everyone’s good at - and what they’re most productive at - and try to keep everyone in that role all weekend. Personally, I can hack around a bit in server-side code, but I’m certainly not very fluent, nor productive. However, we did have several other team members who were quite skilled in that area. Rather than having them waste time setting up their development environments, we had them go to work immediately. They were able to break away and draw arcane looking systems diagrams while I got them set up with the basics, like source control, ftp, and installing server software. I wasn’t able to start working on the front-end code until late Saturday, but the rest of my team was more productive for it.

5. Control Scope… Ruthlessly

The weekend is a constant triage between what features are most important, and which can you actually build in the course of the weekend. Speed matters. Keep a master list. Don’t be afraid to cut and run. If you find yourself spinning your wheels on a feature, or -worse yet- spending time on Google researching how to build something- cut it from the scope. Seriously: you don’t have time right now, so skip it and move on to the next thing. Keep cutting things every few hours, working towards the drop-dead ship date of 6pm Sunday. Also, keep in mind that it’s a demo - you can mock up whatever you need to.

6. Take a walk outside

The atmosphere in Startup Weekend is amazing - a swarm of people hacking away in the LCD glow, powered by adrenaline, caffeine, alcohol, and pure determination. But you can always take a break if you need to. By Saturday night, my team was up against a wall. We’d made some progress on the back end, but we still weren’t even sure what we would demo, let alone many of the business details. So we walked to the closest, smokiest bar we could find and - removed from computers - were able to bond and talk about our product. I referred to our bar excursion on Twitter as doing “market research.” The bar tweeted me back, “Don’t research and drive.”

Bonus tip: reach out

At the end of the day, Startup Weekend was an amazing experience. Reach out beyond the walls of the room, through twitter, through email. Recruit your friends to help over the Internet. Capitalize on the buzz to launch your product. There will be media attention (at least in Boise, Idaho), so make the most of it. Please reach out to me on Twitter @leJDen.

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