5 things I learned at the RBC Next Great Innovator hackathon

This past weekend, I participated in RBC’s Next Great Innovator hackathon. It’s Thursday and I’m still exhausted, but it was worth it for a really enriching weekend — not to mention a third place win with my team, Team Athene! (Named after this owl because Mari thought it was cute, and because its name references Athena, the goddess of wisdom.)

I wanted to post this week while my memory is fresh to reflect on some of the many lessons learned I took away from participating in my first full-fledged hackathon. So without further introduction, here are 5 hackathon tips I learned over the weekend!

1. If you can, come in with a concept.

We received a slide deck containing the challenge about two weeks prior to the hackathon. In the time leading up to the event, we pored over the information provided and bounced ideas off each other. When we arrived at the hackathon, our concept was rough — but we had a strong starting point and were able to hit the ground running with coding and design. Coming in with a plan gave our devs the time they needed to create a visually striking demo, while the rest of us continued to iterate on the concept throughout the day. 

2. Talk to coaches early and often.

Throughout the day, RBC made business, technical and pitch coaches available for teams to direct questions to and share ideas with. Within the first hour, we started talking our idea through with coaches, and we kept at it all day. Their input helped us better understand and articulate our concept, and, in several cases, added to and strengthened our product. So if any experts took the time on a weekend to be at a hackathon, take the time to talk to them! They’re an invaluable resource.

3. Two semi-controversial ideas: sketch, and sleep.

Okay, this one is really two pieces of advice for the price of one. But I’m letting it slide because alliteration! Early in the day, someone came up to our team and commented that he had never seen so much physical sketching and writing at a hackathon before. But sketching is a really easy, low time cost way to share and test ideas with teammates before committing them to code. Paper is a really powerful communication tool, particularly in the pressure cooker hackathon environment where so many ideas are flying around the table that it can be difficult to really understand one another.

And slipping this one in here — get some sleep. We decided to end our night a bit earlier, and meet the next morning a bit earlier to make up time. Sleeping gives your brain the opportunity to reboot — when my alarm went off around 5:00 am, my writer’s block on our pitch from the night before was far gone and I was able to hammer out a rough draft in 10 minutes.

4. Practice your public speaking.

It all comes down to the pitch. You may come up with a remarkably innovative idea — but if the pitch doesn’t sell it, your product will struggle to speak for itself. I don’t have much experience with public speaking and I really felt that this weekend. I understood the challenge and believed strongly in our product, but when it came time to talk about it with a microphone in my hand, I was struck by how nervous I felt.

Throughout the weekend, and ideally leading up to it, practice some form of a pitch — even if it’s just talking through the idea in front of some peers. Get comfortable talking about it, and when the moment comes to present and the requisite nerves come around, take a deep breath and meet the judges with the same confidence you’ve shown others.

5. Act like you’re the winning team from hour one.

I’ve saved what I think is the most important takeaway I have for last: behave like you’re number one from hour one! No, not to motivate yourselves (though it can’t hurt for that reason) — to make sure that, should you move on to the final round of judging, you’re ready for it.

In our case, in the first round of pitching, we only had to present a two minute pitch. We didn’t expect to advance to the next round, but we did! That was wonderful, but then we were left with about an hour to turn our two minutes into ten minutes. Somehow we pulled it off, and we were happy with what we presented, but had we acted like we were going to be a final five team throughout the weekend, we would have put together the long pitch alongside the short one, and just had to practice in that hour, rather than write, too.

It was a gruelling weekend, but I learned so much about myself as a leader, a designer, and a project manager from my experience at the NGI. I also got to work with a really talented team, and to see the work of talented students from across Canada. There may yet be more hackathons in my future! But not this weekend — this weekend, sleep!