What I Learned After Winning A Global Hackathon

Vel Mathanalingam
4 min readOct 30, 2020


I wasn't expecting to win. At least not in the beginning. When I joined the One Health Hackathon (global hackathon focused on disease prevention and deadly pathogens around the world) alongside my three other team members, I was going in with the mentality of simply gaining experience and learning about the different diseases that the hackathon focused on.

It wasn’t until our research period began and our curiosity about the given topic (influenza) sparked that our team felt that we should really go above and beyond with this. After presenting our pitch to leading experts in the field including world renowned doctors and anthropologists, we were able to come out of it as one of the winning teams.

Although our result was excellent, it’s very safe to say that this hackathon was not a cake walk and that we definitely learned some invaluable lessons which will help us in the next time around.

#1: Dive deep first

They say creativity can’t be taught but it can be learned. Going into the hackathon, we were looking to become more creative in order to stand out from all the other talented teams that we were going up against. That being said, trying to straight-up become more creative is a lot tougher than it sounds, not to mention an ineffective use of time.

Ironically, I found my creative instincts developing more rapidly when I stopped trying to focus on creativity itself and started immersing myself in the topic at hand. As I began to dive deeper into my topic and understand the mechanics of it, I started to naturally question the way things worked and through my search for answers, I would stumble across valuable and unconventional ideas.

Through this process, I learned an important lesson; knowledge increases your capacity for creativity. The more you know, the greater your understanding is of what’s possible.

#2: Love your team

It’s amazing to me how close I’ve gotten to a group of people who were nothing more than strangers to me just a month ago. When it comes to your team, these are people that you are going to be spending many hours with in the coming weeks. Our team had countless meetings, lots of lengthy discussions, and a handful of late nights working on content so you could imagine how important it is to be able to get along with people you’ll be spending that much time with.

When we first put our group together, we made a point to focus on team-bonding before we even layed a finger on our topic and doing so provided us with great returns later down the line. We understood each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and personalities which made it a lot easier to effectively distribute tasks and maximize the usefulness of each member.

Along with that, having great relationships with your teammates will definitely come in handy when you come across one of the inevitables of hackathons; adversity. Whether it’s finding a massive hole in your idea, malfunctioning technology, or tough judges, it’s near-impossible to finish a hackathon without encountering any difficult surprises. This is why we found it so important to be able to commnicate with and provide constructive criticism to your teammates under pressure.

#3: Your first idea is not your best

Quite possibly the greatest factor of our success was how tough we were on one another. We held each other to very high standards which wasn’t always fun. Often we’d have trouble building on ideas because we’d constantly keep poking holes into every plan, shooting down one after the other.

This process sounds tedious and exhausting (which is not entirely false) but because of it, we were able to successfully pinpoint the most effective idea in the chaos. It’s very much like natural selection — keep bringing up new ideas and shooting them down until the strongest one emerges out of the dust. Survival of the fittest.

Key Takeaways

Winning a hackathon or competition of any sorts is obviously very multi-faceted but here are the three lessons I’ve found most valuable after my first one:

Dive Deep First: Knowledge increases your capacity for creativity so immerse yourself in your topic.

Love Your Team: Get to know the people you’ll be spending countless hours with under pressure.

Your First Idea Isn’t Your Best: Keep bringing up new ideas and shooting them down until the best one emerges out of the dust.