5 takeaways from winning a hackathon

From left to right, the team of Tara Demren, Don Sirivat and Eliana Alba won the Best Design award at MangoHacks ’17.

In February, more than 250 students from around the country made their way to FIU Tech Station for MangoHacks ’17, where students come together with an idea or a passion, get into teams and build that idea into something tangible in 36 hours.

Tara Demren and Eliana Alba​, two StartupFIU fellows and Honors College business students, were part of a team that won the Best Design Award and State Farm Favorite during the event. In this piece, they share lessons learned during the hackathon.   

By Tara Demren and Eliana Alba​

As two business women (now co-founders of our own mobile app), we attended our first hackathon this year with no technical skills. Yes, it was intimidating, but we gained far more than we expected and won two awards in the process.

These are our five key takeaways from the event that apply to students from all disciplines.

1. Being interdisciplinary ignites innovation

Hackathons are not only for engineers; in fact, business students and students from many other disciplines can add a lot of value to what is built.

Innovation is combinatorial, the collision of diverse points of views is more likely to spark it. Students from different disciplines can bring in a different perspective. While engineers understand technology and the product, non-technical students tend to have better insights on potential users.

Collaboration can cultivate great synergies and build things to bring to market in a way that satisfies. If more bridges were built between students from different disciplines, a lot more innovation would come out of our universities.

Students had 36 hours to come up with n idea and make it a reality at MangoHacks.

2. Every industry is going to be disrupted by technology

Tech is not an industry. Rather, tech is a force that is disrupting every industry. It is not something you will be able to ignore just because you are not an engineer or computer scientist. Non-engineers need to have a basic understanding of how technology works and how to integrate it with what they do to thrive.

We invite you to explore how tech intersects with your interests. Go to hackathons; play and become familiar with technology. You don’t have to learn how to build all these things, but you definitely need to find how you are going to add value to the process – to integrate yourself in a very real and a very near future.

3. Design thinking is the best approach

Our hack, MunchSquad, is a mobile app where restaurants could sell their leftover food to college students at a discounted price, and donate the rest to homeless shelters. It won Best Design, and while the interface was indeed nice and clean, we won primarily because we went out and talked to our users. Doing so validated our idea and helped us understand their needs and our design was based on that insight.

User experience is more than just whether the tech is easy to navigate. You have to understand your user’s needs and design to meet them. You have to be 100 percent user-centric.

One of the ways you do this is applying design thinking: empathize, design, create. It all starts with the research, understanding your users in order to meet their needs later in your design. If you jump in without that base, you are bound to find many of your assumptions were wrong.

Demren and Alba’s team won two awards at MangoHacks ’17, including the Best Design award.

4. Storytelling is crucial

The winning hacks all had a story to tell. It is not enough to build something cool. We live in a human world and must connect in a human way. Connect what you built with the human needs it meets.

What is the “why” behind what you built? We used a very simple problem-solution-implementation format, making sure that when we introduced the design to people, they understood and related to the problem we were trying to solve. What is the point of making something that has no applicable use? What is the point of hacking 36 hours on end, if it goes nowhere?

5. Trust

Build a great team dynamic and then trust the expertise within the team. We are complete control freaks and we felt uncomfortable at first giving the reigns of development to Don Sirivat, our new team member. However, we let go as we saw his receptiveness to our ideas and work, and the respect became mutual instantly.

We would brainstorm, strategize and design, all the while communicating with him to get his feedback. Then he would develop something and run it by us. We were surprised he didn’t hate us when we made him change little things in the design an infinite amount of times, but he trusted us and we trusted him. That made all the difference. Through this system of collaboration, autonomy and communication, we were always on the same page.

So go to a hackathon, get uncomfortable, make something and learn even more. Engineering students: be openminded about bringing business students onto your team. Our team of two businesswomen and one engineer took a vision and made it a reality almost overnight and we aim to launch it in the ​near future.

For more information on MangoHacks, visit their website