Hackathon how-to: One man’s experience at Datacomp

Oceania17

By Dr. Daniel Thomas

Our industry is full of disruption. There is no such thing as business-as-usual; the norm. Our world is constantly changing and reshaping. It can be scary, but it can also be an incredible journey.

Each year, Datacom holds an intense, 48-hour hackathon called Datacomp. Competitors from across the entire Datacom group descend upon Auckland to compete and use new and different technologies in ways that we normally don’t get to in our day jobs.
For me, Datacomp embodies this uncertain and amazing ride we have embarked on in the technology sector. Each year exposes us to new challenges and compels us to try new and exciting things.

It’s about pushing the boundaries, exploring new ideas, camaraderie and a big heap of fun: it’s Datacomp.

Friday

There’s always a nervous excitement as you prepare for the kickoff. Since we had arrived early, we could catch up on correspondence but also get to see the final preparations as the Auckland office became Datacomp HQ.

Decorations going up, competitors checking in and the buzz around the office. There was an electric excitement in the air as the moment approached and MC/organiser Kerry Topp stepped up to the stage.

In 2016 the theme was “It’s Personal”: using cognitive technology to create innovative systems. For myself, it was also personal: this time I was going to do something different and bring an idea from one of our customers. This meant I wasn’t going to join a team; I had to form a team.

Knowing how much effort people put into “pre-forming” teams, I was extremely nervous about trying to form a team on the night: I had just two minutes to pitch an idea and at-tract people to my cause.

Each year pitches get better and more creative. You have not seen anything until some-one raps about creating a smart AI to recommend restaurants.

Auckland's Joon Park rapping his Datacomp pitch
Auckland’s Joon Park rapping his Datacomp pitch

Luckily our team, Community Pulse, came together. But as the team captain I discovered that getting a team was the easy part…

Too Many Ideas

The best advice I can give to anyone competing in a hackathon is the advice I heard from VC winner Ben Roberts-Smith: no matter how much time you have, always spend a third planning.

One of the hardest challenges at Datacomp is focus: You only have 48 hours and there are hundreds of things you can try. We set aside Friday night for planning and we had one key aim: choose one great idea.

The challenge is not dismissing the bad ideas, it’s actually getting rid of the good ones – and it is hard. As captain, I had to listen thoughtfully to the team and take their advice and views on board. Everyone in your team has a different perspective that needs to be respected and considered.

There were a few times I had to drop some of my own ideas as we drilled down. A good captain should listen (and learn) from their team, as well as keep discussion focused and time-boxed.

We quickly learned to listen to our business mentor. Each team was allocated a mentor to help articulate concepts from a commercial point of view. Sometimes it can be confront-ing when you’re challenged on your concepts, but this is part of focusing and distilling. If the idea does not stand up under scrutiny, it won’t survive the judging on Sunday.

At about 10pm we finally had our concept in place. We would create an app that would match potential volunteers with organisations in need. We were ready to start framing and forming up how it would work.

So with Friday done, we took an “early mark” to prepare for Saturday.

Saturday – The long march

Saturday is best described as an emotional rollercoaster. As the smallest team in the competition we had to be extra focused.

Datacomp is more than just hacking together code – just like in our day jobs there are multiple parts that go into the solution. We had a young graphic designer making the screen designs, a data analyst running Microsoft Machine Learning over volunteering data, guys from Managed Services, Business Unit Managers and two very hard working developers.

There were however some lighthearted breaks such as the Datacomp Auction. Things I learned about the auction:

  1. Everyone votes for themselves
  2. Never bid against someone who wants to use drones to help special needs kids watch sports from home when too sick attend in person
  3. Listen to your heart and let the dance come from deep within your soul. Yes. Settling ties through dance offs. By geeks. Who cannot, and should never, dance.

Datacomp is a pressure-cooker, especially on Saturday, but there are lighter moments. Like our team’s Shia Leboeuf motivational video and another team’s Amazon Echo error handling – my favourite moment of Datacomp. It was about 1 AM and I took a five-minute walk and discussed the Echo AI technology with one of the developers from team Chicken Soup. Then they showed me this little gem: if you told the Echo you wanted to go on a trip yesterday it would say “Let me just back up the time machine for you… beep beep beep”. To me this was Datacomp in a nutshell. The technology was fun and they were having fun with it.

Sunday – It all comes together

As the presenter, I was sent back to the hotel to sleep. I needed to bring my A-Game to the presentation.

Of course I slept in.

A mad rush back to the team room (OK, with a stop for a quad-shot coffee) and back into the fray.

We had a minimum viable product. We had a lean canvas business plan. We just needed to nail our presentation. Luckily, we had some great support again from our mentor and the more business-focused guys in the team to pull it together.

It was time.

The feeling once midday comes around on Sunday is one of nervous anticipation. You have just a few minutes to convince the judges that your system not only works, but is a good idea.

Having done singing and theatre was a definite help. You need to relax, make the case and above all: keep to your time. Timing is essential; otherwise, you lose the opportunity for the judges to ask you questions and lose points for going over. If there’s one thing a presenter must be fully aware of, it is the time.

And then it was over.

The other teams brought some fantastic concepts to show the judges. It really showed the diversity, teamwork and innovation Datacom can bring to the table. When you see these ideas come to life, you cannot help but think, “Wow! I work for a really great company: look at all the cool things these guys have done!”

What is a win?

Before Datacomp, my objective was to create a good, tangible idea to bring back and develop with our customer. Coming into the competition without a pre-made team and the smallest group on the weekend, we had nothing to lose. After our presentation I felt satisfied: I had worked with a great team, been able to experience the fun that is Datacomp and we had something to show for our effort.

Oceania 17, Enviropulse and Chicken Soup were awarded the top prizes and deservedly so – there was some amazing technology that really delivered on their goals.

Daniel CelebratingDr. Daniel Thomas celebrating at Datacomp 2016. 

But something quite unexpected happened. We were awarded the “Advance to Go” prize. This means that the judges saw the benefit of our idea and want to help grow it and see where it leads. For an idea related to the community sector, this was a humbling moment. As I write this, I have already started working with others to turn our app into a commercial reality.

Final Thoughts

The thing that I really enjoy most about Datacomp is the privilege of meeting so many amazing people. I am proud to work for such a company; we build each other up and expand our horizons.

Dr Daniel Thomas is a Senior Consultant for software solutions at Datacom. 

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