How to Make the Most Out of a Hackathon

If you work in the software industry, chances are you’ve been to at least one hackathon. As part of a team dedicated to building software apps for the Atlassian, Freshdesk and Slack marketplaces, I’ve helped organize a fair share of them. Often times teams stick to an initial idea that is overambitious and end up struggling to submit something partially functional before their deadline.

I had the opportunity to attend a hackathon organized by Pitney Bowes and Freshservice recently in which we managed to build everything we had planned on time and record a kickass demo too. Here are some tips you can follow to make sure you do great on your next hackathon:

1) Look for unsolved needs

Your first task in a hackathon is defining what you’ll be building. If the event requires using a specific platform or product, a good tip is researching feature or integration requests made by that platform’s users. Support forums are a great source of inspiration, since you get to see what people are actually missing, their problems, and what they’re asking for. This way you can be certain that you’ll be building something that actually provides value and solves a problem in the market.

For us, we knew we had to use Pitney Bowes, PayPal or Freshdesk’s API. We had already built a Freshdesk app so we decided to leverage that knowledge. Instead of trying to come up with use-cases of our own, we visited Freshdesk’s support forum to explore unaddressed feature requests.

We came across several users requesting an integration with MercadoLibre. Users wanted to be able to handle their support messages from MercadoLibre inside Freshdesk. This was especially true for vendors with dedicated support teams using Freshdesk who must manage messages in the two platforms simultaneously.

Since MercadoLibre is the top e-commerce platform in LATAM, with a market share of 9.5% of all commerce transactions online in Mexico, we knew it was a great opportunity to tackle.

2) Define the depth of your prototype

When planning a product you’ll certainly picture it with its full capabilities spanning several use-cases. The tricky part is stripping it down to its core and focusing on building only what’s essential to deliver it’s value proposition.

A good technique is mapping the entire user flow you have in mind. This activity is best done along the product, design, and dev team so everybody brings their perspective to the conversation.

In Story Mapping you start by capturing the primary goal for the product, then proceed to define its main process, and end by listing all the necessary features for each stage.

After mapping, review the flow with the dev team and make them estimate how much it would take to accomplish that. If it requires more time than the hackathon allows, you’ll have to prioritize features and build only those essential to the core value of the product.

In our case, we knew we could create an integration that would allow Freshdesk agents to respond to support requests from potential customers, tackle claims and returns, and enable post-sales support.

After discussing the depth of these features with the dev team, we realized we needed to focus on only one of them if we wanted to deliver a working prototype on deadline. We went with enabling agents to respond to customers’ questions posted in MercadoLibre from Freshdesk.

We mapped the user flow and this helped us picture everything we needed to build: Customer questions posted in MercadoLibre would need to be automatically created as tickets in Freshdesk.

Freshdesk agents would have the ability to view customer information, product listing details, as well as order information in relation to each ticket on Freshdesk’s sidebar. They would have all the information they need to provide quality support to prospects and customers. Agents’ follow-up in Freshdesk would be posted in MercadoLibre as responses to users’ questions and requests.

3) Do your homework

One way to ensure you make the best use of your time is by working on everything that’s not code beforehand. It is of top priority that you define the specs of what will be built and that the design team gets mocks ready. If you’re on the dev team, you should prepare by reading all about the APIs you are expected to work with and researching libraries you can use. This way, on the actual day you can focus solely on building your prototype and every team member will be on the same page.

4) Ask questions

During the event talk to the organizers and to the people from the platforms you’ll be working with. They know their products more than anyone else, so they will be of great help in unblocking you if you have technical issues. Talk to them about the product you’ll building, the problem it solves, as well as how you’re planning to tackle it technically. You’ll surely receive advice on how you can do it more efficiently, which will save you lots of time.

Also, leverage the opportunity to network and find out about what other features or even different integrations they’ve identified their customers are asking for. You might just get your next great product idea from them!

During the hackathon, we made time to chat with the Freshdesk team about our MercadoLibre+Freshdesk integration. They gave us some great pointers on to how to best use their APIs. We also discussed other integrations their customers have requested, which can be a great business opportunity for us. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for advice.

Conclusion

There’s no exact recipe when it comes to hackathons, but preparation and good team communication will get you a long way. Following these tips definitely helped ensure we were building a valuable product and us deliver everything we had planned before the event.

Most teams participating in hackathons think the best outcome is winning the prize, but the reality is that the goal should be to build the prototype of a product for which there’s a proven market need. This way, you use the hackathon as the first stepping stone to build a great product customers will love.

Happy hacking!


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Monica Tye

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