What I learned at UNIHACK Melbourne

August 8, 2014
thoughts writeup development

UNIHACK Melbourne is a Melbourne-based hackathon that was run last weekend (August 89) and is open to all university and TAFE students in Victoria.

Over the past few years, I’ve heard lots about hackathons, particularly the ones run in the USA, and the amount of creative potential they seem to unleash. You hear the stories about how Facebook Video and Chat emerged from hackathons. This, for me, sounded exciting.

An opportunity to stand out from the crowd.

I come up with a fair few ideas every month but, most of the time, I don’t have the courage to pursue them, having had failed projects in the past along with the feeling that comes with working on a project for too long (and not making much progress). This hackathon presented an opportunity for me to build something quickly, just a prototype, and an opportunity to stand out from the crowd. The reason I say this could make me stand out is that I’ve always felt like a stock-standard programmer - I have experience to do things but, when I browse Github or code that my colleagues write, I feel that I lack the skill they do.

UNIHACK, like many hackathons, centred itself around a theme, ‘discovery’, which made it easier to narrow down what I wanted to build. I came up with the idea for Craft! about a week before the hackathon began and that week felt like forever, I felt super eager to get started.

I gained a number of new skills at the hackathon, not ones that might be particularly useful working in the real world, but would help me achieve personal goals.

The first thing I learned was to time manage, right from the start. I spent a good few hours trying to get a specific part of the code working and, as always, it was one line of code that fixed it. I tend to do this with exams and assignments, where I get stuck on a question for too long and don’t move on.

Secondly, I found that it’s far better to build a simple prototype, completely lacking in features but with one main component (the main idea). Initially, my plan was to build a Minecraft server automator (‘one-click’) with a number of tiered plans (hourly pricing). I thought I could crank out a bunch of features in a short amount of time. I was wrong. I’m not trying to discourage anyone reading this, and to clarify, I was working with Python (easy, right?), which I learned a month ago. I was also using the Flask framework, which I hadn’t touched until a day before the hackathon.

The third thing I learned is probably the most important - share your ideas. I came into the hackathon intent on keeping my idea to myself, that I would be sharing it a couple days later anyway, everyone could wait. This is entirely the wrong approach. Think about it. You’re at a hackathon with a bunch of other like-minded people. They think like you but not exactly like you - so, of course, they could add to your idea. They might even want to help you work on it. At a hackathon, sharing will help you flesh out your idea and make new friends.

No one will put you down.

Don’t worry about who wins the hackathon (if anyone wins) - the judges are not there so much to criticise but to provide feedback that might help your product function in the real world.

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