Everyone Wins at an Intuit Hackathon

According to Wikipedia, a hackathon is:

“A design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers and others, often including subject-matter-experts, collaborate intensively on software projects. The goal of a hackathon is to create usable software.”

Stop right there! While the goal is to win the prize for developing the best app, that’s not the only reason to get involved in a hackathon.

To me, a hackathon is actually a business startup simulation, where you analyze a business need, design an app, develop a minimum version of the app and pitch it to investors (i.e., the judges). Developing the software is important, but to win, you have to select a business need that will sell in the marketplace and convince the judges that your idea works. Winning the prize is awesome, but if that’s all you’re there for, you’re missing out on a lot of other opportunities.

Who do you see at an Intuit® Hackathon? First of all, there are the other competitors, but if you see them only as competitors, look again. Could some of them be future collaborators, employers or employees? Absolutely! Think about their skill sets. Do they mirror your own, or are there people with different skills you could work with or learn from?

Next, look at the Intuit employees. Some of them are technical specialists. Some have other skills. Don’t be afraid to talk to them. During the hackathon, they are there to help you understand their software and give you tips about developing yours. Think of it as free consulting.

At many hackathons, there are also subject matter experts, people who may not understand software development, but who have deep knowledge about the industry featured in the hackathon. They can be useful during the event, but you should also consider whether they might make good contacts afterward. Intuit often brings in people with complementary skills to help you with design work, communications, building a presentation or making a pitch. Don’t skip those sessions! Not only can those skills help you win the hackathon, but they are also vital to your career success.

So, you have software and people in a hackathon. What else? You may not think of stress as something positive, but seeing how you and your team work under pressure is a valuable lesson. In a 24-hour hackathon, you have the equivalent of three business days to create and sell your vision. How did you and those around you use the time? How did you recover from things that went wrong? How did you assign roles, break down tasks, update the team and create the deliverables? What will you do differently in the next hackathon or, even more importantly, when you do this for real?

One of the most difficult questions you will ever have to answer on a continuous basis is, how long will it take to build the app or do a specific development task? A hackathon gives you a sense of what you can accomplish in three stress-filled days. That’s a useful benchmark!

The final hackathon step is the pitch. As stressful as it is, the experience of giving a presentation under pressure may be the most valuable takeaway you get. Even if you were unable to develop your whole concept, I encourage you still to present your pitch. Give them what you’ve got and tell them your next steps. You will get valuable feedback and support. Don’t be afraid to ask other people about your presentation. The judges are not the only experienced people in the room.

On a personal note, I entered an Intuit Hackathon in 2015. Our team of five came from four different companies, but we all shared an interest in creating a nonprofit app. We had never worked together previously, and it showed. We had different ideas, different approaches to the task and different ways of assigning the roles, but there’s nothing like a looming deadline to focus the mind! In the end, it came together and we won a prize in the nonprofit category, but for me, the biggest takeaways were the people I had the pleasure of working with, and the in-depth coaching I got into integrating with QuickBooks® Online.