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User Story: Volker’s journey to winning Google’s most competitive hackathon
Participant Resources

User Story: Volker’s journey to winning Google’s most competitive hackathon

Get to know Volker, the second-place winner in the highly competitive Google AI Hackathon.

Earlier this year, Google hosted a global hackathon on Devpost, attracting over 15,500 participants from around the world to push the boundaries of what generative AI apps can achieve with Gemini. This highly competitive Google AI Hackathon challenged developers to create innovative solutions using Google's cutting-edge AI technologies.

We had the opportunity to chat with Volker, the second-place winner of this prestigious challenge, to gain insights into his developer journey and the strategies he employed to stand out among thousands of talented participants.

Tell us about yourself and your background in development.

My name is Volker and I am a Data Engineer at InnoGames, a developer of mobile and browser games based in Hamburg, Germany. My professional journey is deeply rooted in the development and maintenance of distributed backend systems, with a particular focus on data engineering. Gaming and development have been my passions since childhood, so I am thrilled that my career has led me to the gaming industry. 

I hold a degree in Business Informatics and Computer Science. Outside of work, I am a proud father, a dedicated gym enthusiast, an adventure seeker, a passionate gamer, and a hobby photographer.

How did you get started in participating in hackathons, and what drives your passion for coding and innovation?

My first hackathon experiences were actually connected to game development. I participated in so-called game jams, where people come together to create small games within a limited time frame, often centered around a theme announced at the start of the event. For me, the best way to learn new technologies is to use them in smaller projects. 

These events also help shift your perspective and encourage you to think outside the box, which in turn benefits your next career challenge or project. A small anecdote: I once participated in a game jam called "Games for Blind Gamers." The goal was to build awareness about blind gaming and accessibility in general. The project I worked on during this event taught me so much about accessibility, and it has influenced how I approach new projects ever since.

What motivated you to participate in The Google AI Hackathon, and how did you approach the competition?

When I read about the Google AI Hackathon, it immediately captured my attention. The challenge of showcasing what is possible when passion meets technology sounded incredibly exciting.

"While the sheer number of participants was initially intimidating, I focused on breaking the challenge into manageable steps and concentrating on each step at a time," said Volker.

The first step was finding a good idea. A tip I would give is not to use generative AI to come up with the idea itself. However, AI can be a valuable follow-up tool to refine or add details to your initial concept.

I usually start my creative thinking process with brainstorming and mind mapping. Tools like draw.io, Miro, and Excalidraw are great for visualizing and organizing ideas and impulses. It's helpful to think about topics you are personally interested in. For instance, as a movie enthusiast, I developed a movie-themed project for the hackathon.

I often use other creative techniques like the SCAMPER method to come up with ideas for hackathons or game jams. You might be familiar with the quote by Ambrose Bierce: "There's nothing new under the sun, but there are lots of old things we don't know." The SCAMPER technique involves finding new ideas by modifying existing ones. The approach consists of the following aspects:

  • S – Substitute: What can I substitute to make this different or better?
  • C – Combine: What if I combine this with another alternative?
  • A – Adapt: How can I tweak this to make it work in a different context?
  • M – Modify: What if I change the color, size, shape, or other attributes?
  • P – Put to Another Use: How else can this be applied or repurposed?
  • E – Eliminate: What if I take away certain components?
  • R – Reverse/Rearrange: What happens if I change the order of tasks or do things backward?

Applying the SCAMPER technique, I thought about substituting the core game mechanics, the trivia quiz, with generative AI. Additionally, I considered how to make it work in a different context, such as in a browser and under the theme of movies.

This approach provided enough input to formulate an initial idea. From there, I used Google's Gemini AI to discuss and refine the concept until I had a solid plan for the project.

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What strategies did you find most effective for securing a win in such a competitive hackathon environment?

First and foremost, familiarize yourself with the environment. Carefully read the rules, understand the judging criteria, and make sure you fully grasp the requirements before you begin.

Next, keep your core idea as simple as possible. Remember the principles of KISS and YAGNI. KISS stands for "Keep it simple, stupid!" emphasizing that systems work best when kept simple rather than being made unnecessarily complex. YAGNI stands for "You Aren't Gonna Need It," a concept from extreme programming (XP) suggesting not to add functionality until it is necessary. Both principles are crucial, especially because we as developers often overcomplicate things.

It's also essential to allocate enough time for documentation. Hackathons, such as those on Devpost, typically require you to summarize your project, provide a video, add pictures, and come up with an attractive title, among other things.

Investing more time into these aspects makes your project more noticeable. In a crowd of thousands, standing out becomes even more crucial. So, apply KISS and YAGNI principles, and make your presentation and documentation as impressive as possible, and you can distinguish yourself even in a highly competitive environment.

How has winning the Google AI Hackathon impacted your career or aspirations in development?

Winning the Google AI Hackathon certainly opened new doors and had a significant impact on my career development. My network on LinkedIn expanded considerably, and I now have a prestigious accomplishment to proudly feature on my CV.

"This achievement reaffirmed my belief in myself and my ability to strive for my dreams," said Volker.

It’s a powerful reminder that with determination and hard work, seemingly insurmountable challenges can be overcome. Participating in such a high-level competition and coming out on top boosted my confidence and fueled my passion for continuous learning and innovation.

Moving forward, I aim to leverage this experience to inspire others and make meaningful contributions to the tech community.

What advice would you give to developers looking to participate in hackathons?

Don't overthink it. Imagine you're casually tossing your phone in the air and catching it; you can do this all day without worry. But if you stand over a five-foot balcony and try the same thing, your heart rate spikes, you get nervous, you sweat, and you might actually drop your phone—the very thing you were worried about happens because you were overthinking.

By trying to control outcomes through overpreparation and overplanning, you risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don't worry about the number of participants or your lack of familiarity with the necessary technologies.

Just dive in, divide the tasks, and conquer each small step. The worst-case scenario is that you learn something valuable for the next hackathon. The connections you make and the things you learn are already worth the effort. Don't focus solely on winning; that will come eventually.

“My best advice for enhancing skills and making a difference in the tech community is to share your experiences, listen, and communicate. Everyone has something valuable to share, whether they are a career starter or a senior developer,” said Volker.

Finally, I'd like to emphasize how incredible the experience of participating in the Google AI Hackathon on Devpost was. The process was streamlined and smooth, which allowed me to focus entirely on my project. The support and resources available made it easy to address any issues or questions that arose.

Participating in hackathons is more accessible than many people think. For anyone who feels inspired by this interview: just do it :)!

Are you feeling inspired to build something amazing? Check out our hackathons happening now!