Over The Hump: Hackathons: New Coders, Fear Not!

There will always be people who can’t code, that want to participate in hackathons. However, the thing about hackathons: no code, no app. This may seem like a very obvious point to make, but I've found some people underestimate the impact this has on the hackathon participants. In a perfect world, everyone who participates will get their portion of the app to implement and everyone could look proudly at the app in the end and say, "You see this part here? I had one heck of a time figuring out how to make that work!" or, "You see this part here? I did that!” But that isn't always what happens. What tends to happen is that the better you are at coding in the beginning of the hackathon the more likely it is that you will get the majority of the workload.


This has nothing to do with people being unable to understand coding, but it’s more a factor of time. In a hackathon, the goal is to make something that doesn't suck in a short time. That is the name of the game. In many cases, the completion of the app or some part of it will be thrown in jeopardy, if the person assigned the task has to spend most of his/her time learning instead of coding. In these instances, new coders typically find themselves scrambling to be useful in teams that have ambitious coding goals or an app design with lots of hidden complexity that doesn't creep up until later in the coding process.


The most common thing I have seen happen is non-coders either make art or test the app. Some people are content with this, others, not so much. If you are content with this, have a great time! If I could draw, I would be right there with you, but not everyone wants “Stick Man” and “Stick Man Part Deux!” so I stick to what I can do, code! But let's not joke too much, it is common business practice to make mediocre things look good so that users experience some aesthetic pleasure, and aesthetic pleasure makes a huge difference! If you don't believe me, take any app, and replace the art with basic shapes and comic sans font, then tell me if you still have the same impression of the app!


Testers are important as well, but they don’t have anything to do until your app is near alpha. You may find yourself sitting around or taking a job that doesn't last long while you wait for something to test. I don't see this job taken often. Some people just like the hackathon atmosphere and want to play with other people's apps, so they show up and offer their services, which is great! Testers find bugs. Coders tend to not see the forest for the trees at times. What I mean is, we coders know what we intended to make, and look at our code for what we intended. The code may not be doing what we want, but we tend to say "It should be working!" which is ridiculous when Super Mario is upside-down swimming in the sky, but we will say it. A tester finding something crazy consistently can help us track down the problem faster.


Most of the time this only happens when non-coders are in groups with strong coders. Typically the strong coder thinks, "Sure I can give that task to you, but while I'm waiting on you, I could be done already" so they tend to subliminally discourage you from insisting on taking the task. However, some people voice that they really want to try and code. If you really want to take a crack at coding, I say, “Go for it! Do your best! Carpe Diem! YOLO!  がんばって下さい” or whatever you say when you want to push yourself and make your mama proud! You will be surprised how many people are more than willing to help you out with coding. Besides, geeks love to look like know-it-alls anyway! Just give it your best shot, and see how far you get, you will be surprised! I've seen teams with all non-coders go from not knowing how to make a variable to having a GAME working, a full GAME! They never thought they could do it, but they did, and the look of pride and satisfaction beat out everyone else in my book. Meanwhile some other groups had the same deal, no coders and they made games with all kinds of wonderful glitches, but they left with knowledge and experience you can't get outside of a job. They looked at what they made and said, "With a little more time, I can fix this and make it work!" The end of the hackathon is not the end of the world. So non-coders, fear not! You're awesome, and we need you!


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