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Top Tips to Hack Your Way to Success at Your Next Hackathon

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This year's hackathon winners at Engineering Kickoff share their top success tips on how to win (and have fun).

Delphix’s yearly Engineering Kick Off (EKO) has helped uncover some of the best projects through our hackathons, including the latest Splunk integration with our platform. This year, engineering, design and product teams took over the Hyatt Regency in Burlingame, California and spent 24 hours, working on various initiatives related to data masking, cloud, diversity and inclusion, AI, developer tools and more. 

Of the 31 projects submitted, there were 7 winning teams who took home a variety of awards, including People’s Choice, Most Positive Customer Value, Cultural Value, Product Diagnosability Award, Internal Diagnosability, Engineering Velocity and last but not least, the inaugural CTO Award. 

This year’s winners share their success tips on how to rock your next hackathon. 

Solve a Real World Problem Rather Than a Deep Technical One 

Sometimes it's tempting to flex your coding muscles and show off your technical skills, but take a step back and solve for a challenge that affects the world around you. Odds are, you’ll get to that code problem during your normal day-to-day work. Next, be flexible. When starting out, you might have a clear vision for what the demo will be, but that often changes as you run into technical problems. You’re better off presenting an abbreviated version rather than an incomplete one. 
Derek Smart, Senior Staff Engineer, Office of CTO

Build a Dream Team

Hackathons are a unique opportunity to work with engineers that you might not get to in your normal job, and explore unique crossovers between different areas of the product and company. Work with someone you might not know and learn part of the product you’re unfamiliar with. Also, make sure to keep your minimum viable product to produce an intriguing proof of concept demo because generally, you won’t have time to actually finish a full-fledged feature. 
Rachael Naphtal, Senior Member of the Technical Staff II, Development Engineering

Set Clear Expectations

Approach a hackathon with two high-level goals: 1) explore a problem affecting a segment of the audience (could be in the product or an internal organizational process) and 2) learn something new. Often, this requires you to attempt at solving for an issue in an unfamiliar area and to collaborate with others who can bring new insight into the “hack.” That way, the team can achieve something within the allotted time, without spinning your wheels for too long. 
Sebastien Roy, Senior Manager, Development Engineering

Show Up to Win

The secret to winning is showing up, from participation to completion. Manage the project the same way you would for a customer-driven initiative. Determine the tasks required and prioritize them according to minimal-need, would-be-nice, and cool-factor. Lastly, keep in mind that failure is not an option, so find whatever path to success may be available. If all of the above fails, sabotage your competition (kidding!).
Wayne Franklin, Manager, Development Engineering

KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid)

In previous hackathons, I would always have grand projects that were very interesting, fun and complex, but I would never finish. This is where creativity and ‘hacking’ come into play, where cutting corners here and there with hacks, abstracting a problem in new ways, or taking a step back before a deep dive are all necessary to transform a vague idea into a well defined project and finish a hackathon successfully.
Jorge Torres, Senior Member of Technical Staff II, QA & Engineering Ops

Consider Revisiting Older Projects 

Think about something you keep wanting to do during your normal works hours but end up putting off. Is it tweaking your editor? Writing a git command or a browser plugin perhaps? From there, figure out whether it would be a useful and/or a worthwhile endeavor with lasting impact, not just for you or your colleagues but to customers. If the answer is yes, then you are on to something!
Manoj Joseph, Staff Engineer, Development Engineering

Work Smarter Together

Don’t be afraid to take on a project with people much more experienced than you are. Asking to join one of the senior members of my team not only led to a winning entry, but more importantly resulted in a fantastic learning opportunity for me as I explored an unfamiliar area of our codebase under the guidance of someone who knew it very well. 
Neal Quigley, Member of Technical Staff, Development Engineering

Communication > Flashy Demo

Technical communication is an indispensable skill in engineering, and communicating why your work is important is very often more valuable than conveying how you developed your solution. Assume that no one in the audience knows anything about the problem you're trying to solve, and briefly provide motivation for the work at a level that everyone can understand before diving into the details. A flashy demo isn't required if you can convince your audience of the value of your work with your words. 
Kyle Cackett, Staff Engineer, Development Engineering

Practice Makes Perfect

My team wrote a script and practiced our delivery a number of times on a similar stage (when no one was looking). Scripts help with objectifying the major themes as well as ensuring the presentation is relevant to topics that are top-of-mind for the audience. We also did a color test on the projectors to make sure that our pre-recorded demo video would be vibrant and visible. 
Akash Ayare, Senior Member of Technical Staff, QA & Engineering Ops

Don’t be Afraid to Fail

The main point of a hackathon is to have fun and socialize with your fellow coworkers on something you wouldn’t normally work on. That’s why it can be helpful to keep a running list of projects as you think of them throughout the year into a google doc. Sometimes, I don't even end up pursuing the project I wanted to start with in the first place because I try to go too big, but I don’t let that discourage me. Keep pushing through even if you fail, and don't be afraid to present what your intention was, even if you don’t have a working final product.  
Scott Hendricks, Staff Engineer, QA & Engineering Ops

Optimize for Fun 

For me, the most fun hackathon project are the ones that do 3 things: forces you to learn something new, has a broad impact within your organization, and opens the door for collaboration with people outside your team. A project with these characteristics doesn’t always guarantee that you’ll win the hackathon, but it’ll turn out to be a very valuable experience. 
Serapheim Dimitropoulos, Senior Member of Technical Staff I, Development Engineering

hackathon results

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