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How to win at hackathons

12 February 2024 , by Aretha Cooper

Last year’s Innovate Hackathon saw groups of developers competing to get the most out of Nedbank’s banking APIs. Byron Coetsee, one of the winners, explains what it takes to come out tops.

How to win at hackathons

Hackathons bring developers together in a space where they can channel their insatiable curiosity and endless ingenuity into solving problems. At the Innovate Hackathon, participants were given access to Nedbank’s banking APIs, including the brand-new PayShap API, and set loose to create innovative solutions.

For the participants, this represented an opportunity to work with tech that isn’t usually all that accessible, while collaborating with like-minded developers who wanted to build something cool. While Nedbank provided the tech, Make.dev created the experience, keeping the wheels turning and making sure participants were supported from sign-up to submission.

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Byron Coetsee has always been a tinkerer, trying out random ideas and starting new things, even while working full time for companies. It’s got him into trouble a few times along the way, but that trouble has paid off. As one of the winners of the hackathon, he shared five things his team did to ace it:

1. Find the fun in the process
2. Use ChatGPT as a team member
3. Keep constant comms and ask for an extra pair of eyes
4. Do a live demo (instead of screenshots) of your solution
5. Know where to prioritise and cut corners to be competitive

Find the fun in the process

Byron was motivated to join the Innovate Hackathon by curiosity and the opportunity to code for fun again. “When you code for larger systems that need to be able to scale, with themes and tests and everything else, it takes the fun out of coding. Hackathons involve a very different mindset – it’s faster paced and less structured, which makes it feel more natural.”

It is not a walk in the park, however. Managing team dynamics can be difficult, as is coming up with a potentially winning idea. “But the difficult parts are part of the fun, really.”

Luckily, team dynamics fell into place pretty quickly, with each member having a relatively strong suit they were comfortable with. “I have a lot of experience with backend systems and architecture, so I naturally took over that,” says Byron. “Everyone’s skills complemented the others well, so we were lucky.”

Use ChatGPT as a team member

To help come up with a top idea for the hackathon, Byron turned to everyone’s favourite large language model. “I actually copy-pasted all the text from the use case materials we were given and put it into ChatGPT. We found ChatGPT to be most helpful in enabling us to speed up the build process – we called it our fifth team member.”

Once they’d pitched their respective ideas to each other and settled on a feasible one, the team started to think about not just how to build the solution, but what features they could prioritise that would help them win the hackathon. “We thought about what Nedbank and the judges would be looking for. So while we skimped on things like our database, we focused on making the solution inclusive and accessible to people who aren’t necessarily financially literate.” Their winning solution focused on streamlining payroll for hourly workers, enabling them to access their funds pro-rata and in their home language.

Keep constant comms and get an extra pair of eyes on your work

While the team each worked on their own discrete element of the project, they were nevertheless in constant communication. “As soon as I finished something, I’d lean over to one of the others to ask if they needed help, and vice versa,” says Byron.

This helped in moments when a team member got stuck: “It’s easy to sit bashing your head against the wall with a problem until someone else comes along and says hey, you don’t actually need to do that, it’s not important. It definitely helps to have those extra sets of eyes on what you’re doing.”

Do a live demo (instead of screenshots) of your solution

The team decided that their competitive edge during the presentation was to showcase live working code rather than using screenshots of the solution. “It’s a bit of a high-risk, high-reward situation because doing a live demo typically never works.” Fortunately, they built in safety measures so that, in the event of a mistake during the presentation – which happened – it was well handled. “We also made a point of proving that we’d seriously considered inclusivity by demoing switching between languages live.”

Know where to prioritise and cut corners to be competitive

Experience is an essential tool for being competitive in a hackathon, as it helps you know where to prioritise and where to cut corners. “You have to make a lot of concessions, and you also need to get used to doing things in a way you wouldn’t usually. You can’t get too attached to your ideas, because ultimately time is the most important factor. It drives your decision making in every way, all the way down to the structure and architecture of your system.”

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Byron Coetsee is the co-founder of CrissCross, a software solution that specialises in crypto-fiat solutions and world-wide settlements. He was also a participant in the recent Innovate Hackathon, an event in partnership with Make.dev and Nedbank aimed at creating user-friendly, AI-driven tools to empower South African small and medium enterprises to scale and grow.

If you have any questions or want to say hi to Make.dev, you can mail them at community@make.dev or follow them on LinkedIn to find out about future developer events.

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