7 Things I Learned During the Demand Media Hackathon

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Last week, Demand Media hosted its first company-wide Hackathon. Employees put a hold on their day-to-day activities, instead collaborating to pitch innovative ideas and build working prototypes over the course of 48 hours. The only rule? There are no rules! One week later, we’re back to the daily grind, but the lessons I took from the Hackathon will certainly be useful next time around:

1. Pick a fun project
This is a Hackathon—now is definitely the time to be adventurous. So what if your idea doesn’t relate to your everyday job? If it sounds fun, do it. The more passionate you are about the project, the better it will be. My team’s project was photo-driven and involved a lot of time messing with Photoshop, something I could do for hours on end. One of the winning teams focused on Cracked.com and memes—can you even try to claim that wouldn’t be tons of fun? They got to make a bunch of memes…it’s no surprise they won!

2. Think beyond the usual suspects
The eHow Editorial Team is full of intelligent, funny, good-looking people. I know this, because I am a member of that team. What the team lacks is someone who can program JavaScript, design logos…you get the idea. Instead of staying within the confines of our skills, we branched out to the rest of the company. My Hackathon team consisted of an editor, a social coordinator, and a UI engineer; another team had editors, a designer, a product manager, and engineers. Not only did this make it easier to build a product, it also gave us the opportunity to get to know more people in the company.

3. Hack ahead
It’s all about balance. You want to do enough prep ahead of the actual Hackathon that you’re not scrambling to go from initial mock to working prototype in 48 hours, but you also don’t want to spend the duration of the Hackathon sipping mimosas. (Oh wait, you do? Okay, ignore this then.) Once you’ve picked your project and assembled a team, hold a kickoff meeting to nail down everyone’s responsibilities. Discuss what is logistically possible given the time and bandwidth restraints, then assign tasks for each member. For my team, our UI engineer researched design inspiration, while I searched for content and images. One week later, we shared our findings and narrowed down our focus. By the time the Hackathon started, we were ready to rock.

4. Exercise your mind and your body
There was so much food at the Hackathon. Seriously, it was disgusting. I’m like…Skittles? OM NOM NOM. Yogurt-covered pretzels? OM NOM NOM. Slim Jims? Um, no, I’ll pass. By the evening of the first night my brain was going through a strange sugar rush/crash sequence. I headed to the gym for two hours, after which I felt reasonably normal and could actually function again. In hindsight, I think a nice balance of not consuming everything in the building and going on a leisurely stroll during lunch would have been more appropriate and productive.

5. If you want to dress up for your demo, plan it early
On Thursday night, my teammate and I decided that we wanted to look cute while presenting. Like, so totally cute. But not like, fancy cute…just like…cute, cute…you know? No, you don’t. We didn’t either–we just knew we wanted to dress up. We spent an hour brainstorming random ideas. Let’s wear giant sunhats! Let’s wear floral print! Let’s cut holes in calendars and stick our heads through them! No, no, NO. We paced the aisles of a party store for a half hour before picking bunny ears and a four-leaf clover headband. We did look pretty darn cute during our demo, but if we’d put more thought into it on, say, the first day of the Hackathon, we could have saved some valuable time.

6. The bigger the font, the better
There were two screens set up for project demos: one for showcasing the working prototypes, and one for a static information slide about the project. I thought this was smart, because we wouldn’t have to constantly remind the audience about the benefits of our project. What I didn’t consider was that I was trying to squeeze way too much onto that single slide, making it unreadable to anyone who wasn’t sitting within five feet of the screen. Next time, I’m using a really, really big font and way less text.

7. Give an enthusiastic and well-rehearsed presentation
One project that emerged from the Hackathon put a spin on the traditional Demand Media Studios system. I was immediately sold on the idea, because the presenters made me feel like I was a Studio writer and that I would need this product in order to do my job successfully. Their passion for the project, coupled with their ability to tell a relatable story, made for a winning combination.

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