Hackathons: Getting Into Tech Without Technical Skills

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I showed up at 9am to Hackster.io’s Hardware Weekend hackathon sponsored by AT&T. I figured I’d network for an hour then head home with one new quasi-valuable contact in my Rolodex. But as soon as I stepped inside the room I was sucked in by the unmistakable high energy and my curiosity compelled me to get involved.

I came across a team of four skilled programmers/engineers who encouraged me to supplement their team with my non-technical skillset. So, we set our vision, mapped out our path, and started creating. 36 hours later, we had a working prototype, a live website that streamed data from AT&T’s new M2X platform, and a mobile app that integrated with our product. We crushed it.

At the end of it all, newfound colleagues positioned at the forefront of the tech scene were just as eager to create new innovations with me as I was with them. The hackathon plugged me into the cutting-edge tech network. This is how a person with non-technical expertise can get involved:

Start With Why

Why invest two days into something with no determinable outcome? There are numerous benefits. A hackathon serves as a microcosm of a startup and provides a taste of what it would actually be like to start a company. It presents the perfect setting to build strong relationships with technical people, who may prove invaluable for future projects/businesses, where teammates can gain a mutual respect by working with each other and demonstrating individual value. Additionally, as you work, you learn about the latest technologies and how they can be used, thereby expanding your arsenal to create new ideas. Your creative juices will also be electrified by constantly creating without limitations for two days straight.

How to Join or Form a Team

One of your most valuable skills as a businessperson is your ability to develop business. Prove it from the get go by networking your tail off – shake hands, be curious, and put out positive vibes. It will be easier to start conversations if you go with a friend. If you NEED to be the leader of your group, hackathons aren’t for you. Hackathons require individuals to collaborate and organically evolve together, not a group of followers to take orders from a visionary. The smaller the egos, the bigger the team can be, but a team larger than five can be inefficient.

What to Contribute to Provide Value

It’s good to show up with at least one idea in mind. For my team, I provided strategic thinking, facilitated communication, and presented the final product (the presentation is as important as the product itself; screwing up the presentation will render all a team’s hard work futile). In addition, you can fuel your teammates’ fire by radiating energy and enthusiasm. Make sure you and everyone around you is having fun. Be the solver of all problems and a beacon of positivity. Basically, combine Batman’s problem solving skills and Superman’s exemplary character.

How to Win

It doesn’t matter. Winning is not important. However you should WANT to win because this motivation will bring out your best work. But the award wasn’t the real prize – the redevelopment and validation of my soft skills (strategy, communication, presentation, etc), which have been developed over years of experiences but dormant, was my greatest takeaway. These skills are often overlooked but absolutely necessary for a team’s success and a hackathon offers the ability reinvigorate confidence in those skills. You are a necessary piece of the puzzle and your technical teammates can’t do it without you.

I lead the presentation at the end of the weekend and the judges awarded us with a $500 prize. I was able to contribute meaningful work for our team’s success, without any technical know-how. One judge expressed his admiration of our ability to create as much as we did, and that was due to our diverse skill sets.

More pictures here.

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