Most people think of hackathons as almost exclusively the domain of coders, programmers, hardware developments, engineers of all stripes, and other types of technologists. Stretching a bit, people can imagine a need for 3D designers, video game artists, quality professionals, and similar. But the fact is that professionals who might be considered working on the business side of technology should attend hackathons too: marketers, account executives, business development professionals, customer success managers, product managers, and more should all consider participating.

And me? I’m a marketing manager at a company unrelated to the space industry, and I don’t code much.

Recently, I participated in the NASA SpaceApps Challenge, a global hackathon and competition where over 29,000 people from 80 countries came together to solve some of humanity’s biggest problems. I joined the NASA SpaceApps Challenge because I love the space industry and believe it is key to unlocking a long-term future for humanity. And I not only joined a great team that did very well at the competition, but I learned a lot and had a fantastic time too. (If you want to learn about that experience, read this post.)

So I believe any business-minded person has something to offer and get out of a hackathon, if you’ve got a bit of passion for the topic. 

Read on for my tips — and don’t miss the important tip at the end.

Before the hackathon: Understand your motivation

At the hackathon, is it more important for you to: 

A) Learn about the topic and have fun 

B) Win a prize and get noticed

Your answer changes how you prepare and how you choose a team.

  1. If you want to learn and have fun, keep an open mind. All participants have something to teach you. When it’s time to create teams, first look for people who are different than you — try to stretch a bit. Don’t go with people who seem similar to colleagues from other contexts. If you are over 35, I especially encourage you to try to join a team forming around younger team members. 
  2. If you really want to win a prize and get noticed, you should invest time in preparation. Read the complete introductory materials and all the topical challenge areas (if the hackathon has pre-scoped challenges for you). Choose your favorite two or three challenge areas and consider your contribution to that. When it comes time to form a team, look for technologists who have a bit of prior background in those challenge areas. 

At the event: Add value and help your team succeed

Regardless of your intention for a hackathon, here’s what anyone with a business background can contribute to a successful team:

  1. Build group communications: As a business person, you understand the value of communication — not everyone does! Add all team members to group chats, email threads, and other communication resources you’re using for the hackathon. Keep introducing your group members to each other — some team members may forget each other’s names since they have just met. Look for anyone who may be feeling isolated within your group, and look for ways to include/engage them. 
  2. Help scope and design the product, and provide project management help: For teams with junior technologists, you may need to take on the role of project manager or even product manager, since less experienced folks may not yet have been exposed to project planning and design scoping. Include periodic check-ins and prioritization (especially de-prioritizing). Consider a project management structure like post-it notes or a kanban board.
  3. Know the schedule: Many participants want to jump right in and code until the bell rings. Understand the schedule so you have answers ready when they ask, “When and where do we submit?” “How late can we stay?”, and “What time can we show up tomorrow?” 
  4. Fill in gaps to accelerate progress and build a winning project: The fact that you’re free from coding means you can do a million other things that a successful product requires. Seize opportunities to contribute while developers are heads-down — research information, download visual or audio assets for a project, or gather feedback. 
  5. Build hype: Multiple organizers and mentors at the NASA SpaceApps Challenge told us they felt personally excited about our project, and our constant outreach and enthusiasm didn’t hurt. Introduce yourself to organizers, mentors, judges, and helpers. Tell them what your group is working on and why. Highlight the achievements of your teammates: many of them don’t know how to promote themselves. Seek expertise, and externally communicate progress updates. Don’t try to “cozy up” to judges, but feel free to chat if they invite discussion.
  6. Draft and rehearse the presentation: Your teammates will depend on you for presentation expertise. Read and share the judging criteria — your project should meet or exceed all criteria. Understand how you’d extend and completely productize the project if you had more resources; summarize that in your presentation. Understand the time allotted for presenting, gather consensus around who will present, and start rehearsing early. If one of your coding teammates will be running the demo, they’ll need to break away to rehearse a bit.
  7. Support junior team members: Your teammates have their own motivations for participation. In my case, I met a computer science student at a hackathon who surprised me by saying they wanted to “practice leadership skills” and lead the presentation. Admittedly, for a minute, I felt a twinge of disappointment, thinking I wanted to practice my own leadership skills. But almost immediately, I understood it was more important for me to make way for a more junior person and try to support them so they could feel a sense of inspiration and momentum for themselves. If you are reading this, know that you have so much already — make space for others to shine!

After the hackathon: network with folks you met and save your work

  1. Network: After the hackathon ends, send a thank you note to the entire group so they can stay in touch with you and each other. Add all team members on LinkedIn. Send notes to the event organizer, all mentors you talked to, and any other participants you enjoyed meeting. Offer your help to all — joining them for future hackathons, introducing them to new contacts, being available for feedback on their own projects, or volunteering to mentor at future events.
  2. Save your work: Document the work product (take screenshots, screencap a video, or clone the repo), save a copy of the presentation slides, save a copy of the presentation video to re-watch your performance, and collect photos from the event. Share all assets with your teammates — they will thank you. Don’t count on your teammates to maintain the project website! 

The most important tip for business professionals at hackathons and coding challenges

  1. Create a positive environment: Above all, and this is something I learned from a fellow teammate, display an encouraging and positive spirit regardless of what obstacles you may encounter. Smile, find ways to relax when you are bored or frustrated, and always stay open to feedback from every single person on your team. Your choice of attitude can either cultivate progress or poison collaboration. Even if you are in it to win it, you must contribute to a fun and positive working environment for all.

Now you know what I’ve learned from participating in a hackathon as a business professional. I hope you now feel confident that you can excel at a future hackathon. And if you are interested in an upcoming space- or science-related hackathon, please let me know about it! I may want to join you.