October 20, 2017

How to be the perfect mentor at a hackathon?

A guide to providing meaningful feedback and making the teams work wonders in hackathons.


It’s Thursday afternoon and you’re sitting at your office, feeling a bit distracted. Your thoughts drift off to the weekend, those two days rest from your otherwise busy life. Except that you’re not getting any rest. You’re going to be working in a whole new environment, with people you’ve never met, on tasks you’ve never seen.

This may be you if you’ve ever been a mentor in a hackathon (or you’re going to be one in the future). Mentoring is the key to achieving the best results from a hackathon — it defines whether you get 10 useless ideas or 10 world changing concepts. Good mentoring is hard but don’t worry, here is (almost) everything you need to be a good mentor!

I am not going to lay out every single detail in this post. Instead, you will get all the necessary pieces, but at the end of the day, it’s up to you to fill in the blanks. The topics you’re going to see are not rules that you have to follow or else you will fail.

They’re more like guidelines.

Team looking at their computers

Don’t be afraid to approach hackers. They will tell you if they need privacy.

  1. Know why you are there

Many of the most successful projects start with people from different backgrounds. The same applies to hackathons. You need someone who can code and someone who has an eye for the visuals. Too many hackathon teams form around the developers, and sometimes the designers. But, when they start poking at the challenge, there is often a loss of direction and a lack of confidence in the idea. That’s because the most important part of the team is still missing. Every single team should have someone who knows what needs to be built and why.

This is where you come in.

If the teams don’t have a domain expert from the field, your expertise is required to get the teams on the right track (or pull them back from the wrong one). When you prepare for the hackathon, think about your role in the organisation. What is it that you know better than anyone else? Why were you picked to be one of the mentors? Or, what is it that made you volunteer? Every mentor can give their two cents and each piece of advice is precious to the teams. Remember, usually the teams do not have the required domain knowledge, which is the most important part of a solution. A lot of people can develop stunning products or create beautiful user interfaces, but only few know the challenges and problems of your company.

So, a hackathon team needs multidisciplinarity. So does the ‘mentoring team’.

Here’s why.

Think back to your role in your organisation. How wide is it? Can you confidently answer detailed questions about technology, business viability, customer segments and sales? These are the topics hackers want to know about, and most often the people in charge of customer service have no expertise in technology, and vice versa. It’s virtually impossible for one or two persons to provide them with a complete understanding of the problem.

Different viewpoints offer supporting information, but even more importantly, sometimes a single sentence from the right person brings down an entire solution. That’s when learning takes place. That’s why you need a diverse set of mentors.

“To be honest, we could have this done in a backyard shop in Bangladesh.”

2. Be available
Since the hackers are going to be working almost 24/7, we expect you to do the same.

Just kidding.

But, what is really valuable is the possibility to talk to mentors when problems arise in the development process. That is quite difficult to accomplish, if there are no mentors around. If your company is brave enough to arrange a hackathon, they’re also likely to reserve enough resources and personnel to guarantee the best answers to all kinds of questions (and if they’re not, it’s officially your job now to tell them they should).

What does it mean to be present and how long do should you be there?

There’s no predefined time frame for a good mentor, but most are around from morning-ish until the evening. Whatever your schedule is, it’s a good idea to check in with the teams know before you leave, providing them a chance to ask any questions they may have.

It’s not enough to be physically in the same environment. A good rule-of-thumb would be to go around the teams one by one at least once a day. Ask what they’re doing, what challenges they might have, and most importantly: how can you help them. Many teams don’t even know what they don’t know, and that’s okay, too. Feel free to challenge their idea, the business model and technology choices they have made. If they’re confident about it, they can justify and explain their choices. If not, at least you have made them rethink, which is incredibly valuable.

After all, you’re there to help the hackers, and the best way to help them is to make them fail early and often.

Hackers are sometimes weird. They are not dangerous despite their oddity.

Perttu looking at computer with sunglasses

3. Come in with an open mind
Hackathons are all about exploring new products, services and business opportunities. Exploration, by nature, is venturing into the unknown and searching for something new. The only way to successful exploration is by not narrowing down the solution space too much. I mean, if your company already has an existing idea to an existing problem, what do you need a hackathon for? Sometimes the best ideas sound crazy at first, but with a little bit of tweaking they become masterpieces.

Since you’re going to be mentoring multiple teams, you’re bound to hear a variety of ideas. Your job as a mentor is to bring out the best in all of them and challenge the teams that are not quite there yet. Some teams are focusing on a tiny piece of the problem and others will tell you they are building a spaceship*. In a weekend. You will do both parties a service if you point out the facts early on, when there’s still time to reconsider.

*A figure of speech, unless the hack is all about going to Mars.

4. Have a consensus about what you want from the hackathon
There’s nothing quite as challenging as getting mixed signals from different people in the same organization. The teams are leaning on your knowledge and expertise to understand the problem and domain better, so it’s a difficult task to figure out whose opinion weighs more, in case there’s variation.

In the best scenario, your organization has a clear goal for the hackathon, and both mentors as well as the judges all agree on it. Doesn’t sound like too much to ask? Unfortunately, in too many events this is not the case.

Hosting a hackathon takes a lot of work. But, there’s a positive side to that as well! The more effort you put into thinking about your organization’s goals and needs for the hackathon, the more value you will gain from the event. If you allow hackers to focus on the right problem, they will give you the right solutions. And that’s where the value comes from.

5. Place an ‘inside man’
I do not mean you should place a spy in each team. What I mean is that when your organization decides who is on the jury, they should consider including one of the mentors.

A lot happens between the start of a hackathon and the final pitch. Teams form ideas, they pivot ideas, they build mock-ups and some do this multiple times. Although I do believe that good solutions speak for themselves and pitches should be able to stand alone, a mentor can provide a ton of valuable information about the team when it comes to judging.

As brutal as it sounds, all that matters in hackathons is the final product. But does it? And should it?

As said, many teams go over multiple iterations of their concept, and sometimes they create a solution at the last minute, throw in some catch phrases and sell it with their killer pitch. The question here is: how thought-out should the solutions be? How bad is it, if there’s no business model? Is it okay if they’re impossible to implement in real life?

I don’t have an answer to these questions, but whoever decides the winner, should. In such cases it’s useful to have someone in the jury who knows what the teams are about and what they’re capable of.

There is no right or wrong way to be a mentor, as long as you keep this in mind: the purpose of mentors is to expose the underlying hopes, assumptions and knowledge that are not evident to participants.

The most memorable feedback for me came just moments before our final pitch from one of the mentors, who was also part of the jury. In short, his mindset distinguishes a perfect mentor from the rest:

“Guys, we really like what you’re doing but, to be honest, we could have this done in a backyard shop in Bangladesh. What is it that makes you unique? That’s what we want to see.”