Hack Event Survival Guide

I get to attend a lot of hack events as a Yahoo!  Developer Network Evangelist. These marathon coding sessions are a great opportunity to learn new skills, meet new people, and build something cool. I’ve seen some common problems and solutions appear at these events and this post will help those going to their first (or next) hack event.
Team Drop2Drink

Hacker Survival Guide

Have your own server/domain ready

This is one of the biggest mistakes I see at every event. This is especially true for students at Hack University events. You cannot count on that free college account for homework assignments to work during a hack event. Often times they will limit what code can be used, they include firewalls, and there’s no permanence to your hack.
Tartan Hack event at Carnegie Mellon
This also solves one of my biggest peeves of students applying for their first job in the tech world. This is the internet, you need to control your online presence. We (resume reviewers) want to know what you’ve been exploring. Go to Dreamhost or other similar company (not GoDaddy or Network Solutions) and purchase your domain name. Sign up for an account that gives you control of the server and allows you to install multiple domains/platforms. I have been happy with Dreamhost, where I run many domains on a single hosting plan.

Your personal site should include a link to your GitHub, Flickr, LinkedIn, resume, and a list of hacks you’ve created. Make it easy for people to find more than Facebook photos of you getting smashed at a party. Having a personal server also makes it much easier for you to throw together that prototype over the weekend for the next big thing. It is the best investment you can make as a student.

Bring a designer friend

notebook with sketch for a recipe builder hackHack events are great for non-engineers. Take some time to leave the engineering building and visit other sections on campus. Meet artists, designers, literature majors, biologists, etc. Invite them to the next hack event. Many of the best hacks I’ve seen have included a non-engineer on the team. This is especially true for graphic designers that can help your team understand the user experience.

Bring what you need

The most important element is the power cord for you laptop. You should also consider bringing: an extra mouse, keyboard, monitor (I’ve seen several teams with monitors), headphones, iPod, a full day’s worth of medicine, programming reference books, USB flash drive, digital camera, phone, and sketchbook/pen.

You should also keep in mind that you will be staying overnight in a room with dozens of geeks. Bring toothbrush, pillow, sleeping bag, or anything else that might make that 2 hour nap more comfortable. You should also plan on dressing for comfort instead of style.

Bring ideas

Hack events thrive on new ideas. Be prepared to explore new languages, problems, and technologies. You should also come to the hack event with some concepts to share with other hackers. The first part of a hack event involves sharing these ideas with other hackers to decide what to work on. You can also visit Random Hacks of Kindness for problems that need solutions.

Be Prepared

University of Washington Hack Day Most hack events allow you to do some work in advance. You should have your own account set up with GitHub, Yahoo/YQL, Twitter, Facebook, and any other service that you will be working with. Pre-install Node.js, Java, Zend, or any other server environment you’ll need for your hack. Plan in advance for any hashtag, phone number, or URL that will be needed for your hack.

I’ve seen many, many teams waste critical time trying to set up a server at 3 a.m. on a sandboxed university server and it sucks the energy right out of the team. Have this done in advance so you can concentrate on the good stuff.

Hack events are a great opportunity to learn a new coding language. It’s not a bad idea to read the documentation before heading to the event. This is especially true when using a library such as YUI or jQuery.

Ask for help and meet the mentors

Hacking away at UMichMost hack events will have representatives from Yahoo or similar companies, as well as subject matter experts. Take this opportunity to meet the mentors and get help. I’ve given many one-on-one tutorials on building mashups. I also try to sit down with every team to discuss their ideas and projects at least once during every event. If I don’t know the answer to your problem I will reach out to people on my contact list for assistance. Rasmus Lerdorf, has graciously provided several teams advice about PHP over Yahoo messenger during hack events. I’ve also been able to reach out to the engineers that develop YUI libraries and APIs. Don’t be shy at a hack event. This is the time to learn and meet new people.


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