A week ago, I competed in via.me’s XHack 2012 and was fortunate enough to win the People’s Choice $1000 prize. If you ask anyone who was there, they’d tell you that I won solely based on my three minute demo. Here’s how I did it, and I hope that these tips will help those of you who also get a kick out of building things at hackathons.
Show, don’t tell
This tip is the most important one, and that’s why it’s first. It’s also the most obvious. But for whatever reason, people just seem to forget that no one wants to listen to a PowerPoint presentation about how cool a hack is. They want to see it with their own eyes and judge for themselves. Your goal should be to get your hack in front of the audience as quickly as possible. Show them your hard work.
Explain why your work matters
Although you should be striving to show your hack as quickly as possible, sometimes it makes sense to give a backstory about why you made what you did. In my case, I talked about how difficult it was to post a picture on via.me, which provided the motivation for making a Chrome extension that would allow a user to post a picture to the site with a single click. The explanation took about 30 seconds, and it allowed me to provide some background before demonstrating my app.
Don’t go into too much detail
My hack was a simple Chrome extension, and that’s all I told the audience. I didn’t mention the great OAuth2 library for Chrome extensions that uses a neat workaround in order to work with redirect URIs. I didn’t mention how I used XHR2 to grab images and upload them directly to via.me. Implementation details are boring; what matters is the result. You only have a couple minutes on stage. Don’t put your audience to sleep.
Do it live
Decide what the coolest part of your hack is, then do it live. In order to demonstrate how big of an improvement my hack was over the existing system, I asked via.me’s Director of Product to participate in my demo. I brought up a random picture and asked him to upload it to via.me, the catch being that there would be a stopwatch timing how fast he could do it. As he rushed to upload the picture, I narrated how much trouble the user had to go through in order to upload a single picture: right click to save the picture, decide where to save it on the hard drive, navigate to via.me, look for the upload button, navigate the file system again in order to locate the downloaded picture, and then finally click upload.
By the time the picture finally uploaded, 1 minute and 49 seconds had passed. Then it was my turn. I started the stopwatch, clicked on my extension, and finished uploading in under five seconds. The audience loved it.
If your demo doesn’t work and it’s your fault, don’t make excuses. Especially don’t say that it worked 5 minutes ago on your local machine and that you can prove it by demonstrating it to any interested parties after the demo. Unfortunately, even though you’re probably telling the truth, it doesn’t change the fact that your demo is not working when everyone is able to see it in action. Just explain what it should do, and focus on the parts that do work. If nothing works, then just laugh it off and blame it on the demo gods. It happens to the best of us.
If nothing else, you probably learned a couple things along the way and met some smart hackers. Even if you don’t win, you should be proud of the fact that you were able to build something completely new from scratch in a very limited time frame. After all, that’s what makes hackathons so fun in the first place.