Lessons Learned From My Participation in a Hackathon

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Introduction

Yesterday felt more like a marathon than a Hackathon. My fuel tank was completely drained when it was over, but now I have had some time to recharge and I wanted to write this piece for others the learn from my experiences.

What Is A Hackathon?

It was about a month or two ago when I decided to participate in the “Hackathon”, which is one activity in our “Geek Week” at General Motors (GM). I also signed up for the “Top Coder” challenge, which I also participated in a couple of days ago.

Since I have never competed in a Hackathon, I really didn’t know what to expect. In my mind, the term Hackathon conjured up an image of a bunch of “computer hackers” sitting around a table writing malicious code while trying to break into someone’s computer! The usage of the term “hack” has a negative connotation, so I guess this is why my mind went to that deep dark place. Luckily, I was completely wrong and now my brain has been reconditioned to think of this event only in positive terms!

I didn’t even know, for example, that each Hackathon is different and that they have a theme. In this case, the mission was to save 5 minutes of time for each employee, each day. In other words, our goal was to use technologies to save time for employees, thereby benefiting GM. Once I learned what the Hackathon represented, I was relieved and began enjoying the process. In fact, what happened turned out to be so delightful, that I awoke early this morning to record this experience by writing this article.

Whereas a Top Coder challenge is an individual event, a hackathon is a team competition. By entering the competition as a solo member, I was placed on a team of people I had never met. That was the first great thing about the event: I met new people and was exposed to new ideas in tech. That not only happened directly on my team, it happened during the actual event itself when every team collaborated on their project and gave demonstrations of their ideas.

I didn’t control which team I was placed on. The event organizers did that for me. When I realized I was a part of the team, I tried to begin participating on the team.

This is challenging to do, however, because of the time demands I have in my life. I’m like a double agent, working in Georgia during the week and “vacationing” with my family in Tennessee during the weekends. There isn’t a whole lot of time for me to be doing extra work like a Hackathon can impose on you.

Working on a Team

Luckily I was placed on a team that had a leader with a vision of how to fulfill the mission of this hackathon. My new buddy Naveen Sankar happened to be a mature leader, with an amazing amount of technological prowess coupled with a splendid attitude.

In a lot of ways, Naveen was driving the bus for a few weeks before the event, while me and the other team members were hopping on and off the bus at various times. Project demands were high for much of our team, but we tried to contribute what we could as we moved down the road towards the competition date. It was definitely Naveen’s vision, skills and expertise that lead us into competition day.

Yesterday was the competition, which is an all-day affair. Each team gets together in a big area (Figure 1) to collaborate and bring their ideas to fruition. Of course, we all have regular jobs to do, too, so the interactions during the day have to be balanced to keep everything running smoothly.

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Figure 1 – the scene of the GM Hackathon. In the lower right picture is a big screen hung on the wall. This is used to project your project during an 8-minute presentation, with the team members standing in this area as other teams watch their demonstration.


 

Running an event like this in a smooth fashion is not easy. Luckily at GM, we have a fantastic team of people that coordinate and bring these “Geek Week” activities into our lives. This multi-talented team is known as ET, which is short for emerging technology, not extra terrestrials! I met so many wonderful people this week that I feel like writing an article about them. Their efforts make all of this possible and to them, I offer a great big “Thank You!”.

Overall, I would say that the collaboration needed to complete our mission took significant maturity and commitment on our team. As I watched many other teams demonstrate their ideas, if those two things didn’t exist on a team, it showed. To produce a great product and be able to give a live demonstration of it in 8 minutes is not an easy thing to do!

What I Learned and Appreciated

With a senior team of at least 5 judges, the selection of winning teams is a challenging endeavor. The judges get to review the projects during the workday to learn about the technologies being used within each project. They have the discretion to dive deep into what you are doing to comprehend your mission. They ask great questions, they understand the potential value to the business, and they are an experienced and well-balanced collection of judges.

Since the diversity of technologies is so expansive, the judges have a tough job to assign the winners. Not only do they have to pick the top three winning teams, they have special categorical winners to choose like “Best Use of Technology”, “Best Presentation”, etc.

The technologies used during this event are expansive for a few reasons. First, there are a group of companies that sponsor the event at GM. Companies like IBM, Microsoft, CA, Oracle and others lend their technical experts to the competition, as well as providing food, gifts, and other schwag during the event. Not only are new and emerging software products used in the projects, new hardware like sensors, robotics, small computers, virtual glasses, and other things can be used.

The sponsoring company experts also help the team members implement the best-emerging technologies for their projects. This is a great way for these innovating companies to get their products directly to the people that can use them. This is a very clear case of tech symbiosis and it makes a lot of sense to me.

Second, there is ample time for personal development in a Hackathon. For instance, I took a course from Microsoft on how to write Bots, a few weeks before the competition. I loved that course and hope to use it in the future. I now understand the roles that Bots play in our lives as an emerging technology.

This is only one way that participating in a Hackathon can extend your capabilities. By giving us these opportunities, the leadership of GM is encouraging our staff members to try new things, to innovate and bring to fruition, their visions of what is now possible to do in tech. Simply by watching the presentations, I learned so much from the other teams that the event was worthwhile for me.

The Results

Quite frankly, the results ceremony was a blur to me because it was an exhausting day. By that time of the day, I was already thrashed and really could not appreciate all that was happening. The categorical winners were announced first, followed by the overall team classifications.

Our team (Voltron) was selected as the categorical winner for the “Best Use of Technology” (Figure 2).

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Figure 2 – We were a categorical winner for the Best Use of Technology.


 

Just after sitting down from receiving this award, we were announced as the 3rd place overall finisher, so we had to quickly return to the stage to receive our prizes for this.

The top two teams were then announced and I can not even remember what their projects were!  I’m going to have to write another article to describe not only what our project represented, but what the other top two projects represented. For you Alteryx lovers, I will tell you that a massive Alteryx workflow was used to drive an important part of our technology. I can’t wait to explain what we did!

The winning team will get the opportunity to compete against the three other winning Hackathon teams from the other GM innovation centers. This will occur in Austin in October. Since I will be there for the Top Coder competition, I hope to capture insights from our four leading “Hackathon” winning teams.

Until that time comes, thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

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