Welcome to Cal Hacks!

You’re passionate.  You’re brilliant.  You want to build something incredibly meaningful.  And we’re so excited to have you at Cal Hacks 5.0!  🚀 

At Cal Hacks, we care not only about challenging experienced hackers, but inviting new hackers with fresh ideas and diverse perspectives to build unique projects.  If you’re a beginner hacker, especially one that’s never been to a hackathon before, this guide is for you.  We want to walk you through what to expect, how to get started, the super cool things you can do at Cal Hacks, and what happens after Cal Hacks and beyond.

We hope that this resource is useful in making Cal Hacks amazing for you!  Regardless of whether you choose to use it, you’ll do insanely well (that’s something we don’t doubt ;) ).  Lastly, we just want to emphasize that if you feel intimidated or lost, we really do understand you - for some of us, our first hackathon was just a year ago.  Your first hackathon can be scary, but trust us that the experience is incredibly worthwhile.

At any point during the hackathon, if you have technical questions, hit up our help queue, and if you have logistical questions, check out #logistical-questions in the Cal Hacks 5.0 Slack workspace (the invitation should have been emailed to you!).  If you have questions or feedback on this starter pack, DM Jazz or Suhas on Slack!  If you have feedback on Cal Hacks in general, tell us at cubstart@calhacks.io.  Thanks for coming, and good luck!  

So much love
Jazz, Suhas, and all the Cal Hacks Directors.

What’s a hackathon?

Hackathons are programming events typically spanning a couple days where people come together to build projects. Besides that, they come in all shapes and sizes! There are high school hackathons, college hackathons (like us!), company hackathons (internal and for the public), and hackathons held by all kinds of organizations for causes they care about (Green Hackathon, Hack Homelessness Hackathon, etc.).

As far as Cal Hacks specifically, we want all our attendees to get the chance to build what they’re interested in, but also to learn and grow from their experiences at the hackathon. Hackers are encouraged to reach out to their neighbors to bounce ideas off of or ask for help. There are workshops throughout the event hosted by other Berkeley student orgs and by many of our sponsor companies. These companies also provide us with their engineers as mentors, and lots of students from around the Bay come to help out as mentors as well. No matter what level you come into the hackathon at, there are opportunities for everyone to develop their skills. 

But how can I prepare??

You’re already here! This means you probably have some of the items that are helpful, and you’re ready to hack.

Here’s all the important stuff you need:
  • A love of learning.  A hackathon would be pointless if you didn’t learn anything at all.  So experiment with iOS development, try spinning up a webpage, or learn how VR works!  It doesn’t matter if you’ve never coded before - challenge yourself to learn new things.  Check out our website for more starter packs we’ve compiled to get you started.  
  • A willingness to ask for (and give) help.  There are literally thousands of people around you all simultaneously learning and building.  So if you’re not sure how to solve a bug, chances are exceedingly high that you can find someone to help you (try using our help queue to ask questions!).  Remember, a hackathon is a space for collaborative innovation, not meaningless competition.  Relatedly, if you don’t have a team, hit up the #team-building channel to find team members - it makes hacking faster, more productive, and more fun!
  • An optimistic spirit.  Yes, your idea will change.  Yes, you will spend an hour figuring out why a piece of your code isn’t working (it happens to all of us :’) ).  But throughout, never lose sight of the fact that you’re learning, growing, and becoming an even more amazing hacker.
  • A creative, curious mindset.  One of the most important aspects of a hackathon is the opportunity it presents for building something genuinely novel and impactful.  So don’t be afraid to experiment with strange ideas, and in whatever you build, keep in mind how your project could impact real people - both now and in the future.

That’s all you should prepare!  If you’re feeling down in one area or another and need a break, keep reading for info on some of the cool things you can do at Cal Hacks other than hacking :) 

What should I expect?

Cal Hacks is a jam-packed 36 hours (actually 37 this year, due to Daylight Savings), and it can be overwhelming to walk into Memorial Stadium on Friday as it’s swarming with 2,000 people. Thankfully, we have a bunch of different resources available to help make the process as smooth as possible! For our CubStarters, we’ll be having a hype session right at the beginning of registration (6:30 pm). We’ll check in on how everyone’s teams and ideas are going, make sure you know who you can reach out to if you need help anytime during the hackathon, and get you excited to start hacking!

Afterwards we’ll have our opening ceremony, with a talk given by Michael Seibel, founder of the extremely popular startup accelerator Y Combinator. This’ll be followed by dinner and a team building mixer for people who applied without a team or whose teams went through some turnover before the event. We want everyone to be able to find the perfect team so that they can get the most out of their weekend! By the time these are over, all our sponsors will be set up with their iconic heaps of swag central to every hackathon. That’s not all they’re there for, though; some sponsors are also serving as mentors, hosting workshops, and offering onsite interviews. They want to meet you, so reach out!

As far as the hacking itself, all five floors of the hall of fame section of the stadium are available. (if you’re ever confused, take a look at the maps section of our live site to find all of the specific rooms and sections we have available for different events.) Lots of people like to come into the hackathon and secure their working spots early. While it’s nice to be close to the action, no one is required to stay at the stadium, so feel free to set up elsewhere and come and go as you please. But don’t forget to check our live site for all of the workshops we have available! These will be ongoing throughout Friday and Saturday; take a look at the beginning of the hackathon and figure out which ones might be useful for your project. We’ll also be serving snacks, meals, and coffee throughout the weekend, so make sure to take advantage :)

How to Start Hacking 😮 

It’s time to build your hackathon project!  Where do you start?

Here are a few key phases in the project building process, which we’ll describe to help you gain more of a sense of the steps you can take to build an awesome hackathon project.

Step 1: Team formation

If you’re a solo hacker, we highly recommend that you find a team!  It’s doable but much harder to build an interesting project, learn while doing so, and have fun, if you don’t have a team.  You can attend the team mixer right after opening ceremony to find more people that want to form teams. There is also a #team-building slack channel.

Keep in mind that the best teams are diverse in skill set and perspective.  If you’re building an iOS app, for example, you’ll want both programmers and designers so your project both works and is presentable to judges.  And if you want a truly novel idea, it’s easier to find one when all of the members of your team have had diverse experiences.

Step 2: Ideation  

The ideal hackathon project is interesting, unique, impactful, somewhat challenging (so you can learn!), and achievable within the time constraints of a hackathon.  Here are some tips on ideation at a hackathon:
  • Work on what matters to you.  It’s easy to get caught up in buzzword-y sounding ideas, but ultimately, your goal is to build a meaningful project that allows you to learn.  Don’t be afraid to explore!
  • Iteration is good and normal.  Chances are, you and your team will iterate and pivot before finally agreeing on an idea.  Try to spend enough time to come up with a compelling project premise, but not too much, because remember that you need enough time to build it!  
  • Try checking out the prizes.  Sponsors have plenty of API prizes - looking at these might help you find a starting point on the possible tools you can use and projects you can make.  

Go forth and brainstorm!  If you’re stuck, here are some resources on techniques for ideation.

Step 3: Prototyping and planning