What I Learned by Participating in a Hackathon as a UX Geek

Blog Post created by andrew.harris on Oct 31, 2016
So, I have this stigma on what a hackathon is okay?



You walk in a room full of nerds; firstly, you must make sure your wi-fi is disabled, and then you pat your pockets repeatedly. This is so far from the truth yet, when I walked into that room full of nerds, I disabled my wi-fi and checked my pockets. Whatever.


With about two weeks to plan for the money20/20 hackathon 2016 in Las Vegas; myself, who happens to be a UX designer/developer, one of our resident database dudes, and a middleware maniac; were collectively confident we had this event in the bag.


A few days into our daily lunch planning sessions that led up to the hackathon, we learned that we would be onboarding two newcomers. A bright high school senior that was president of the robotics club; the other a junior in the same high school and an avid saxophone player, thespian, and founder of the schools computer science club. This was our crew.


With our crew in a single file line, we navigated the room of close to 500 developers, designers, product, and business minded payment geeks to a round table covered with a white linen table cloth and a cheap electrical strip outlet awkwardly laying on top. I was really hesitant to plug my brand new MacBook Pro into this yellowing device.

Like most payment professionals, I have an issue with trust. Maybe this is why we keep our career-dials on the finTech channel. This all points back to me checking my pockets when I walked into the room of excited, like-minded guys and gals eager to solve a problem around payments and X. Habit.


There is something about the thrill of zero to launch in 24 hours that really makes you wonder if you made the right decision in accepting such a crazy ask. Why!? The answer is simple and obvious. Why not!


We all get weighed down with our day-to-day tasks of ticking the done box, going from meeting to meeting, trying to rationalize why we are doing what we are doing and if it is the best method. It is nice to step outside those borders and really just do whatever it takes to get something up and running in the shortest amount of time.


You not only learn something about new technologies, new teams, and new problems; you also learn something new about yourself. That is some deep human psychology talk, but the essence of all things.


During our pre-planning lunch sessions leading up to Money20/20 Hackathon 2016, we had ideated numerous times and came up with about thirteen unique ideas. A week before the event, we whittled that list down to three ideas, and finally to our final product idea.


We knew what we wanted to solve for, what tech stack we wanted to use, and what our product flow should look like for MVP. We even had a list of nice-to-haves as we crossed the MVP finish line; hands waving in the air holding that shimmering flag of innovation listening to the roar of the crowd! We talked about the presentation yet never went any further with it.


So here we are sitting at this fancy linen-covered table, in a fancy ballroom, in a fancy hotel, in the middle of Las Vegas; plugging our MacBooks into this yellowing power outlet and wondering what kinda food they were serving for lunch. We knew the challenge, we knew what product we wanted to code against, we knew we had limited time to get around the room and collect as many t-shirts and swag as possible before the coding-clock started ticking.



I won’t describe in detail what happened over the next 24 hours, but it was intense. Just imagine the Rooftop Scene from The Hangover (2009).


As with any problem solving exercise, we ran into all kinds of blockers and issues along the way. How do we connect A to B? Oh wait, this is a different OS? I have to learn a new OS? Why don’t they put out more of the those tasty creme brûlée things? Dude, we haven’t slept in 30+ hours and we have to present to the judges!



Fast forward… at the end of the 24 hours we had a working prototype! Phew… What about that list of nice-to-haves we thought we would be able to add into our product? Ha. Didn't happen.


As of today, our plan is to keep working over a couple of lunch hours here and there in Denver, get the product to a deployment-ready state and wait for the crowd to go wild.


As a UXer, this hackathon was probably one of the best experiences I have had in my finTech career and I can’t wait to be a part of the next one. We had an awesome team, an okay idea, but barrels of enthusiasm and passion.


I learned that ideas can come to life over night and more importantly, that I love to learn. Meeting new people may not be high on my list, but those that I did meet were super awesome. Also, I learned I need to manage expectations, but keep aiming high! I also noticed I started to trust more and wasn’t checking my pockets as much by the next morning. Maybe I was just too tired to care if someone stole a thumb drive.


A special thanks to everyone on our team and everything each member brought to the table individually that ultimately collectively made us a kick-ass team.


The plan is to add future writings, talking more about what we were solving for and how as a group of individual contributors we came together with an answer. Also to dive deeper into hackathons, payments, and the trust factor. So more to come.



Andrew Harris is a UXer in #fintech based in Denver, working for Vantiv Integrated Payments on the Product Development team as an advocate for the user. With a proven background in design and business, Andrew has turned his passion for learning to code into something bigger than he ever imagined.