How to Be Part of a Hackathon—If You’re Not an Engineer

Daniel Doubrovkine
Nov 17, 2015 9:08PM

I recently had the privilege of serving as a judge for MIT Hacking Arts, a two-day conference and hackathon that attracts hundreds of participants to Cambridge, MA, to explore the intersection of technology and art. Watching technical and non-technical participants team up to hack inspiring ideas reinforced my love of Art x Science, one of Artsy’s core company values and a guiding principle behind our own annual hackathon.

As an engineer, I’ve participated in countless hackathons over the years and collaborated with a wide variety of talented teams, technical and non-technical alike. Art x Science emphasizes the importance of incorporating diverse ideas, approaches, and skillsets into any project and hackathons serve as a petri dish for these kind of collaborations. As a technical contributor always looking for a dynamic team to hack along with, I’m excited to write this post for non-technical participants and focus on the myriad of ways they can successfully contribute to a hackathon.

What's an Artsy Hackathon?

Similar to other company hackathons, ours is a chance to brainstorm ideas and build products outside of our usual business priorities. It is an optional, internal event hosted by our People Operations team that typically lasts two days without all-nighters or extra hours.

While some hackathon ideas go nowhere, some have provided meaningful business value and helped us think about the future of our company in exciting and important new ways. Examples include Artsy Timelines or S’up—a casual, cross-functional catch-up between three team members on a weekly basis, which has been instrumental in helping scale our 100+-member team. 

What is the goal of an internal hackathon?

We often feel stuck in the minutiae of work. I personally answer hundreds of emails everyday, meet with half a dozen people, and fix a bunch of small problems. It is easy to become bogged down with the small-scale progress we make with our inboxes and back-to-back meetings. 

A hackathon is an intentional way to create time for team members to think about macro-level problems, iterate on immediate solutions, and connect with one another in new ways. Artsy hackathons have no hard rules. Groups form organically and some team members prefer to work on their own. All we ask is that the team build something they are passionate about.

At our most recent company hackathon, I joined a team to work on a project that stemmed from a very important question by Artsy’s  founder, Carter Cleveland: “If I wanted to start a new company that competed with Artsy today, what would I make?” The fact that we were able to dig into this question, identify an answer, and build a compelling prototype in under two days was a strong call to action and inspired some real change in short to medium-term product plans. 

What’s the best way to contribute to a hackathon as a non-technical team member? 

I’ve gathered a few suggestions based on my best collaborative experiences:

Focus on growth.
Join a project that can teach you something you want to learn.

Start simple.
To begin, don’t focus on inventing a product or a feature. Instead, tell a story or identify a problem.

Build a team of diverse talent and thinkers.
Seek out team members who will help you brainstorm and become passionate about executing on an idea.

Think outside the box. 
Don’t limit the scope of what you can create to software—film a short video, write a book, or make a work of art.

Identify your minimum viable product (MVP). 
Work relentlessly on reducing the scope of your team’s project to a much smaller product.

Empower every team member. 
Identify responsibilities that everyone feels comfortable and excited to take on—maybe team members want to explore other interests, like developing graphics or communications.

Establish product-market fit. 
Spend time researching other products that deliver similar ideas and help the team make more informed decisions with this data.

Use your domain expertise. 
Find experts or find data to support insights to back your team’s project.

Reduce. Research. Recycle.
Not all answers require new code. Reduce your workload by researching the best, most expedient paths into unchartered territory. In some cases, this may mean recycling old code.

Dance your way to the finish line. 
Become the choreographer of your technical team for the final presentation—can you make them dance?

Most importantly, have fun and under-promise so you can over-deliver!

Daniel Doubrovkine (aka dB.) is CTO at in New York, working on bringing the art world online. He is a maintainer of multiple popular open-source projects, including Java Native AccessRuby Grape and Hashie. Daniel graduated from University of Geneva in the late 90s and founded and sold Vestris Inc., an early stage technology start-up right after college. He joined Microsoft as Development Lead, was Director at Visible Path, then Architect and Development Manager at Application Security.

Follow @dblockdotorg

Daniel Doubrovkine