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


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.


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. 

How bots and personal assistants can improve customer experiences

By Kerry Topp

Datacomp blog 1 - robot lightbulb

From Iron Man’s Jarvis to Droids like R2D2 and BB8, we’ve always had a vision of personal assistance from artificially intelligent machines that we can talk to – and they understand what we say, how we are feeling, and the context around us.

We are closer to this reality than you might think. Last month at its annual global developer conference in San Francisco, Facebook announced the company was opening up its artificial intelligence-powered platform, M.

M is a bold answer to Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. It’s a virtual assistant powered by artificial or cognitive intelligence; however, what makes M different from other offerings is that on top of using artificial intelligence to complete its tasks, M is also powered by a team of Facebook employees, or M Trainers, who make sure personally that every request is met. Over time, through the responses of these real people, the virtual assistant will learn to answer more complex questions and reduce the need for the M Trainers.

The global technology landscape is relentlessly charging forward at an exciting, if not break-neck pace. Those that explore and embrace new technologies gain a decisive competitive advantage in today’s world.

But companies aren’t yet taking full advantage of what virtual personal assistants and bots can offer. Yes, personal assistants allow us to do more with less – they can also help businesses provide better customer experiences. Businesses may be considering mobile strategy, digital transformation and how to stay ahead of the curve, but what they’re not considering is the potential impact of cognitive intelligence technology.

This is much more advanced than the voice recognition technology you encounter when you call your average call centre – we’re talking about artificial intelligence that understands, learns and remembers. Cognitive or artificial intelligence technology includes image/emotion recognition, speech recognition, and natural language processing.

Take, for example, how this technology could change the old-fashioned drive-thru. When you pull into a drive-thru, your license plate is scanned and an app pushes suggestions to your phone, based on what you previously ordered – whether you placed the order at that particular location or another one around the country. You can order on your mobile device while you wait in line, or you can place your order through the speaker.

But there’s no real person behind the speaker – it’s a personal assistant listening to your order – which you can place in any language, speaking in a way that’s natural to you – asking you the right questions, and suggestive selling you your fries.

For customers, buying dinner is more efficient, and they get a more consistent experience. The company saves money on resourcing, and guarantees customers are always being presented with the option to upsize their combos. It’s a win-win.

The fifth annual Datacomp event will be held from the 10th to 12th of June this year and the theme is “to create personal experiences for our customers or your own ideas through the use of cognitive technology”.

Datacomp is an innovation event where teams take an idea through to a working product in 48 hours and compete for coveted top prizes. In the last four years’ competitions we have had over 250 people from across our business trained in new technologies and new ways of working. Last year’s event saw 130 competitors take part from across New Zealand and Australia, which raised the bar for creativity, results and… dance.

Kerry Topp is the General Manager of Transformation & Innovation at Datacom.

How to run an amazing hackathon (part two)

Robbie Presenting

By Kerry Topp

In part one of this story, we looked at the big picture – what you need to think about ahead of time, and who you need to consult. In part two, we’ll look into the nitty gritty logistical detail.

Define the key milestones
The key milestones in a hackathon are:

  • Finalise the theme
  • Set date
  • Launch event/registrations open
  • Registrations close
  • Training
  • Finalise numbers for catering
  • Run the event
  • Post-event round up

Build the plan and execute on it
From there, think about logistics and build your plan. For brevity I have assumed that you are running your own internal hackathon, not an external event where you might charge for attendance.

Start planning 8-10 weeks out. Be careful to look out for scheduling conflicts with other major events or potentially look to leverage these events if you think this makes sense. One year, the Datacomp organising committee – who were predominantly made up of fathers – missed a scheduling conflict with Father’s Day.

The plan you build can be lo-fi or it can be run on a tool such as Project or Trello. To make it easier I have put the plan together in order of when completion of the task is required.

  • Theme – create an interesting or fun theme that has a ‘hook’ for would-be participants
  • Test the theme – test the theme with would-be attendees, see what their reaction is
  • Start and end time – decide when you want to kick off and when you want to finish. Friday evening through to Saturday or Sunday is best
  • Duration – Decide on the event’s length. 24-48 hours is ideal
  • Food – test and decide on meals, snacks, drinks. Offer vegetarian and vegan options and ensure you have enough for everyone. Best advice: don’t skimp on the food!
  • Power – Have power boards available for each team and ensure there are enough power outlets as a lack of power has the potential to make or break your event
  • Networking – This is an imperative, it absolutely must work! Make sure you have a wired and wireless backup available and expect two connections per attendee
  • Audio visual equipment – ensure you have a projector, mic, recording equipment etc and test ahead of time. Don’t leave this to chance – particularly if you are planning to live stream
  • Livestream, video and photography – this is another must do. It allows you to tell a story and create a connection which will live long after the event is finished
  • Presentation and Q&A length – Five minutes is good – three for the pitch and two for Q&A.
  • Judges – Select the best possible judges from across industry – including startups and larger enterprises
  • Training – depending on the type of challenge, training workshops can take place ahead of the event and are a great way for newbies to come up to speed, but also for all participants to pick up new skills
  • Prizes – Prizes should be subject to budget

General Rules of Thumb
The following general rules of thumb stand based on what we have seen running these types of events;

  • Budget – you can set your budget anywhere, however we’d suggest budgeting NZD$250-300 per person
  • Registrations – you are likely to get 15-20% of your target total population if you run the event on a weekend. This generally increases to 20-25% if the events are run during working hours
  • No-shows or drop outs – you are likely to see around 10-15% of your original registrations drop out so plan your catering and venue selection on this basis
  • On the day – you are likely to find that 20-25% will turn up on the day without having given any thought to what they might do during the event.

Other sources of hackathon information

How to run an amazing hackathon (part one)

Matt Swain Holding Award

By Kerry Topp

Not all hackathons are created equal. At Datacom, we know this first hand, because we have run five of them in the last four years.

Our own internal hackathon, Datacomp, was first run as ‘Metrocomp’ in 2012. 30 Datacom employees, all from Auckland, took part. Each year, the competition has grown as people have poured in from across other geographies to take part. Our most recent Datacomp, held from 24-26 July, had about 130 participants from Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch, Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra.

The quality of the solutions presented at the end of the weekend was phenomenal, and everyone – participants, judges and organisers – commented on how successful the weekend had been.

If you want to run a successful hackathon of your own, we have some strategies, best practices and rules of thumb we use to ensure events are valuable, productive and fun for everyone.

What is a hackathon?
At Datacom we define a hackathon broadly as:

A “pressure cooker” event where people come together to rapidly, creatively and innovatively solve problems. A hackathon doesn’t necessarily have to be about technology.

In our hackathons participants typically form into groups of at least five people. We don’t set a maximum, but we’ve found that a team of more than 10 gets difficult to coordinate and impacts momentum.

To get a sense of what a hackathon looks like, check out this video of our 2015 competition:

Here’s what to do before you start planning.

Define the objective – be clear about why you are doing it
Define what the objective of the event is. Is it a cultural exercise first and foremost or is it about the deliverables? Be very clear about what the event is and what it’s not and stay true to the objective throughout the whole process. It’s the whole organising team’s job to ensure that the original objective is kept front and centre throughout hackathon planning and execution.

Define success
Decide on what success looks like by determining the overarching goals of your event in measurable detail. For example you might want 120 attendees, 12 prototypes or hacks delivered, or 10 recruits. This will give you a metric for your post mortem review.

Here are some examples from Datacomp 2015:

Criteria Target Measured by
Staff engagement (event) Minimum 100 people across AsiaPac participating in Datacomp Number participating
Staff satisfaction & engagement  (post event) Minimum of a 4 out of 5 rating for the event Satisfaction survey
Customer testimonials delivered  to sales channels (post event) Minimum 2 customer testimonials via case studies post event Production of testimonials
Staff testimonials delivered to recruitment (during event) Minimum 2 staff testimonials via video during event Production of testimonials
Staff testimonials delivered to recruitment (post event) Minimum 2 staff testimonials via case studies post event Production of testimonials
Social media coverage General: positive social media sentiment from staff and customers participating Standard Social Media coverage

Assign accountability and pull together the organising team
Determine who the sponsor of the event is. They are generally the one who is funding the event. Once this is done determine who is the owner of the event. This is the person who is accountable for making it happen.

Once these two key roles are filled, you can then form the organising team around the event owner. No more than five people is optimal and they must all be committed to making it happen. There is no room for ‘passengers’ in a hackathon organising team.

Consider the stakeholders
When planning a hackathon event, consider the perspectives of each of the following: participants, organisers, mentors, judges and spectators. Working through the use cases of each party will help ensure the event is well-rounded and increase the likelihood of accomplishing the goals of the event.

In the next part of this two-part series, we’ll look at all the logistics – you know who you need to consult, but what do you and your organising team need to actually do?

How to run an amazing hackathon (part two)