4 - Hackathons

Posted on Sunday, Apr 12, 2020 | Category: Hackathons | Series: Podcast Episodes | Hackathons, Development
Here we go - Episode #4! Have you ever had an idea, and you want to quickly prove it out? Or have you wanted to build out a scenario to expand your own skills, whether that is development, design or perhaps other skills? You've probably heard about Hackathon events in recent years, and that's what we'll focus on in this episode! I'm very excited to introduce my second guest of the show, Maria Vrabie, a very good friend, who has plenty of experience with Hackathons, both participating in them and organising or mentoring for them. It's a very insightful session, so let's go ahead and find out more about Maria's experience with Hackathons. Here we go.

Show Notes

Hello and welcome back to another episode Cloud with Chris! You're with me - Chris Reddington, and we'll be talking about all things cloud.

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Here we go - Episode #4! Have you ever had an idea, and you want to quickly prove it out? Or have you wanted to build out a scenario to expand your own skills, whether that is development, design or perhaps other skills? You've probably heard about Hackathon events in recent years, and that's what we'll focus on in this episode! I'm very excited to introduce my second guest of the show, Maria Vrabie, a very good friend, who has plenty of experience with Hackathons, both participating in them and organising or mentoring for them.

It's a very insightful session, so let's go ahead and find out more about Maria's experience with Hackathons. Here we go.

Chris: Hi everyone and welcome back to another episode of Cloud with Chris! We've got an interesting topic for today's session! When you think about all those times where you've got an idea… You want to go and do something with it, you want to go and transform it into something. Where do you start? Where do you actually go with this? One of the things that we hear a lot about in our industry and a lot about in technology these days is hackathons… and i'm very delighted today to bring in a colleague, a friend and my mentee as well (I have to say!), Maria Vrabie. Maria - hello!

Maria: Hello! Hello, Chris. Thank you - Thank you for the invitation, and for the kind words as well.

Chris: No worries, no worries! It's a pleasure to speak to you as always. So, today we're going to talk about hackathons. I know it's something that you're very passionate about it, and is something you've done a lot in the past as well, right?

Maria: Awesome. Yeah, it actually all started his back my time at university - which seems such a long time ago now.

Chris: So university was the first time you did a hackathon?

Maria: Yes, so actually back then… All the hackathon hype - so to say - was just starting. I was in my second year and there was this student society called KCL tech society and they were organising this hackathon thing. Obviously a student hackathon is fairly different from, let's say a corporate hackathon and company hackathon. But at that time, it was an event over the weekend so from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon. We were supposed to form a team or come with pre-defined teams to build something and present it at the end. A cool thing about the event is that it was free to attend, and also there were loads of sponsors. There were some cool non cash prizes… Things like really nice keyboards or game passes, so that's how it all started as well. It was really interesting because the president of the society and the co-president were my friends, and they were the ones that encouraged me to go. “It will be fun and also a weekend of free food”… And let's be honest, when free food and students go together it's a great combo.

Chris: Absolutely, awesome - awesome. Yeah, I heard free food. I heard prizes. All things that students are going to love… So I think there's been a lot of hooks to get you get you started there when you were back in university. I'm really intrigued - you mentioned that was the first hackathon you did. What was the thing you worked on there? What was the project? What was the idea and how did it go?

Maria: Sure. I must confess, we spent half of that time just battling Android Studio. We built a project - an android app that was meant more as a treasure hunt. So, for example we integrated with some maps APIs. Let's say you go through London and you have to complete different challenges. On the way, you need to stop at different restaurants, and you get food prices as well. It was very funny, because one of the sponsors for the hackathon was a very known food company there. So we were trying to integrate with their services as well, to win from their side. So it was a very interesting experience.

Chris: Awesome. So you were already doing your market research, and were already targeting your audience. Love, it love it!

Maria: Exactly.

Chris: When you think that you started doing hackathons and these types of things at university (and I know it's still something that you're still involved in as well, from when we regularly speak with each other). How have things changed over that time? Have you notice any differences? Maybe… What kind of hackathons have been involved with since? Maybe, let's start there?

Maria: Sure. Apart from the university hackathons that I was on from both sides… Firstly, from just as a participant, right -p art of a team that would just build something over a couple of days. I was also on the organiser side, so dealing with all the event organising part. In addition to that, since I started working for Microsoft, I have been involved with a couple of open hacks that we do with our customers. There, I was either a mentor. I was also involved in a couple of charity hacks. So we had a couple of charities come into our offices, which is really awesome to do… also some work for good. Then each team had a project with them and were just building together for a couple of days. So a mixture of events I would say.

Chris: Gotcha. So you've had the corporate one, the giving back and the charity one, and then the student ones where it all originated. Awesome! So you've got this journey, of all these different types of events that you've been to. Not just where you have attended and been one of the developers or one of the team members, but now in that mentoring role as well. So literally giving back from a journey that you started on. Really awesome.

Maria: Exactly.

Chris: Awesome. So before we jump into some of your learnings and experiences that you've found along the way, what is one of the most memorable things that has happened? The good, the bad, the ugly… What's one of those key moments that stand out for you along that journey?

Maria: Sure. There is a funny one, when I was actually on the organiser side. There was this student hackathon called Hack London. It's still going nowadays, but it was one of the very first editions. At a student hackathon, you'd have to make sure that everyone is fed. As I mentioned before, you have sponsors and we used to call this the flying breakfast. Basically, what happened there was the Sunday morning after a night of coding. You know, people were just waiting for the food. We took care of it before, we did a huge supermarket order - so everything was set. But then when the time arrived for the food, the food was not there… only for us to realise that it arrived a week before and someone else signed for it!

Chris: Oh no! Someone got a free breakfast just for being there a week earlier, and all of your attendees…. Oh man. So I guess there was a lot of scrambling at that point and figuring out how you solve that problem quite quickly?

Maria: Exactly. Looking back now, it all sounds funny. It was a lot of working under pressure, back then because having so many people under one roof and eating food on a Sunday morning wasn't too easy. But in the end we managed it, but I think that was one of the most funny situations. I would say, for sure.

Chris: Funny to look back on, not funny to be in at the time. Completely understand, completely understand! I think that's maybe even something I wasn't really thinking about, but is a really good point for any of the listeners hearing about this hackathon experience, right? It's not just about the actual building of the things, in forming the teams, and what that project is going to be, or those different ideas and bringing that together. It's also the well-being of all of your attendees, right? The whole idea for a hackathon is you're there for that period of time, and you mentioned there's an overnight one so the well-being of everyone… making sure that everyone's got enough food, that they are rested, that they're looking after their own health l is just as important. That's something you need to think about as well, so that's a really good call out actually, really good call out.

Maria: Exactly. I think there were a couple of conversations now, how do we even make these events more healthy? Even from a food perspective… because when you think about hackers or programmers in general, we all love pizza and things like red bull. But then, how do we make all of this into a more healthy habit while still achieving the same goal.

Chris: Exactly! Interesting. So, let's move on a little bit here. Let's think about the experience that you've got from where you've attended and where you've gone into this role of mentoring, and arranging and organising some of these hackathons as well. What are some of the main things that you've learned? Suppose someone's going to start a brand new hackathon, they want to go and arrange something. They've got an idea, they've got something that they want to get out there. What tips do you have for those folks who might want to start off with that?

Maria: Sure. So when I think for example, maybe at a corporate hackathon or a company that would like to build one. I would first think of a purpose. Why do we have a hackathon? Hackathons are really cool and can be a very nice experience, right? You get a team together and you work together for the same purpose. However, if you don't have a defined purpose - things can be challenging and may not go that smoothly in the end. So, I would recommend - for example - maybe you want to try something out… If something would work for your team, or integrate specific technology in your platform and you want to take your team out for two days and just focus on that. Or, maybe you just want to try to see if something else works or not into a Proof of Concept (POC) as proof. So I would say, first the purpose of it if. That would be one of the first pieces of advice.

Chris: Gotcha. So, have a really clearly defined problem. We're either going to build this new feature and functionality, prove it out - prove that it works and do some very lightweight testing and scenarios around it. Or, just come up with a scenario where you're trying to innovate around a specific use case for example. It's really having that grounding of “Why are we all here”, so then you've got that common goal that everyone can work towards.

Maria: Exactly. And I'm very glad you mentioned about the testing part as well. You know we all live in an agile manner now with a duration and tests. Sometimes hackathons do require just maybe putting something together, to prove that it works and then dealing with a proper development process as well. Now again, it depends on the goal as well. Hackathons can work in an agile manner with iterative testing and so on.

Chris: So just because it's a very condensed amount of time doesn't mean you can forget about all of your tests is the message that I'm hearing there. So, for anyone listening in - Don't feel like just because you've got a 24 hour or 48 hour thing going on means you can't do your tests. It sounds like you can still absolutely do that. So listen in to some of our other episodes, because we've definitely got some thoughts on that one as well. So Maria, what else? I think you were going to mention some other tips for us there as well?

Maria: Awesome, sure. At the same time, I would say being organised. At the end of the day, a hackathon is like any other event, right? Hackathons themselves are just places for experimenting, so not really something organised. But for that to happen, you need to have the right setup. So, making sure - for things like you may not consider important - like make sure the food is there, making sure all the WIFI access, making sure all the setup is done before. Because what you don't want to do - you don't want to have everyone in the room right, for a day and then, spend half the day just to set up and install the right tools. So making sure you are good to go from the start line or you know what it takes to achieve your goal. Maybe another thing to add, would be if you would like to have a hackathon on trying out a specific technology - perhaps having a couple of SMEs (subject matter experts) in the room, so that if things if things weren't going as predicted, you can have people that know the technology well or whatever stack you're working with to help and unblocks certain things.

Chris: So having that SWAT team that you can call in and say “We've got this problem, we can't figure out why on earth this thing is happening. Help us unblock. Help us get going, so we can keep focusing on that grounded problem that we're trying to solve here. Let us be focused and effective on what we're trying to solve and do here. Come in, help us unblock this and get us going again”.

Maria: Exactly. I've actually seen this in one of the recent hackathons that I've attended as a mentor. So we had a hackathon for women and non-binary folks held at the Microsoft reactor, back in summer. And then, folks attended and teams were formed, but it happened that none of the folks were developers, right.

Chris: Oh, okay!

Maria: So they needed some guidance from the mentors. But, if the mentors weren't there, it wouldn't have been the smooth experience right. We have to create an app, but maybe you don't even know where to start, so having someone there to guide them and to get them going. It was really nice to see the excitement on the face of everyone when they would create their first website, or their first API call. So that definitely could be one to take into consideration.

Chris: That's really inspiring, because I guess I have the preconception - and it's not necessarily a good or bad preconception - it's just that image that you think of a hackathon and you think of people who have been developers and technologists for such a long time. But, actually to give them that experience to go and throw themselves into this experience, where they can create their first application their first deliverable from a technology perspective… That's amazing! That's a really good way of allowing people to test themselves out and to try something new. Love that idea, awesome!

Maria: Exactly. What I love about this thought, is that the excitement is real on their face. Remembers, I mentioned that they may have their first thing working. So that's a really awesome to be present in that moment, I would say.

Chris: So then, we've talked about tips for people that are setting themselves up on that journey and getting started. But, what are those subtle differences that make a good hackathon become a great hackathon? I think you've given us a couple of those tidbits already, but do you think there's anything top of mind that really - you think - takes it to that next level would you say?

Maria: Sure, I think there are a couple of things that definitely would make for a smoother experience. One thing I would say first, would be the purpose - making sure that you have an end clear goal. Because hackathons are time consuming, right. For example, if you look in our team as well - if we were to do a hackathon, that means obviously people will be out from their desk to build something really cool. But then, we have to make sure that we are very clear on the purpose on the end goal. That's what I would say would be one of the first. And also to make sure, hackathons are all about people coming together and working together. Making sure that this is still maintained during that whole process, to make sure that the teamwork and that everyone is heard. You know, maintaining that inclusive environment. I think those are definitely some things to take into consideration, and make a hackathon greater I would say.

Chris: And I think that's such a really important topic there. There's this saying that if you're not deliberately including people then you could potentially be excluding people, right? Because, you're not fostering that environment - you're not fostering that scenario where you are bringing everyone in and letting everyone bring their best to the table. And that, again is so important in this scenario where it's not necessarily normal, right? You're coming together as a team, solving a problem in a very short space of time. So it really does require everyone to bring their A-game to come together and really focus on how they can work together and bring the best out of each other - not just themselves, right! So that's really key there. That's a really good point. So then, if we keep moving on - because I'm loving these ideas - If we think then about our day-to-day, right? You know the types of organisations that we work with. They might be very small and medium sized customers, start-ups or even wide ranging to large enterprises across different industries for example. I think one of the things that you and I see a lot (because of the types of discussions that we have normally), we see customers that are focused on their DevOps transformation and moving away from that kind of waterfall approach and going into a more agile approach. They are bringing all these DevOps principles in, considering how they can iterate over things and what-not. One of the things that I'm really interested in (and I speak a lot about), is this idea of focusing on things like requirements for example and how they bring requirements to table and validate some of those requirements. There's a couple of things top of mind for me here. So, when you do these kinds of hackathons - these kinds of events - how much focus is there? We've talked about this idea that it's important to have that problem well understood (and that almost sounds a little bit like requirements or designing to some kind of specification). How much of that upfront planning do you see as being important? So, that idea of “This is what good for us will look like”, “This is how we know the project is delivered”, “This is how we know that we've achieved what we set out to achieve”. Do you get what I'm getting at there? I'm curious about the requirements side of things.

Maria: Sure I definitely think (as with any project) requirement are really important. It gives you a purpose - what you're working towards, and as well as that - is a good way to measure how you're doing towards certain goals. Actually, remembering now one of the open hacks that we had in Microsoft… We had different customers coming in with different problems and challenges to be solved in those four days. So in the beginning we tried to establish ,let's say the v1 version of that POC (Proof of Concept), the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) requirements, so that we know what we would like definitely achieve after those four days. Then, we also made a list of extra things which are good to have but not necessary. It sounds like quite a formal process, but it actually gave the team a really good vision of what we should look like and how we can adapt after the first day, comparing where we are in terms of those requirements. It didn't have to be anything formal, just maybe a whiteboard, some diagrams, some Visio diagrams diagrams as well. Just something to work towards, so definitely very important. I will also recommend - no matter the length of the hackathon - even if it's a day. If you have a goal or purpose to work towards, then that starts from the requirements. So a huge fan of requirements as well as you can see here as well.

Chris: There is something quite subtle in there you said, but I think again - just bring it to the forefront here - is the idea that if you're going to do that planning up front, things are going to change. You might need to re prioritise different things. There might be certain things that you go, “You know what? We've met that, awesome! But we won't be able to meet that in the period of time we have left”. It's the idea of bringing that DevOps mindset to the table as well. That idea, if we've got these sprints admittedly our sprints in this scenario are very very short; it's like a day or a few hours or whatever it may be. We just need to be very agile; react to what we need to achieve. Realistically look at what we're going to achieve in that time, and then adjust and course correct and used the telemetry and the monitoring. We can use all those things to identify what do we need to prioritise in the backlog, what's our focus and where do we go from there.

Maria: Yeah, I agree. I'm really glad that you mentioned that as well, because hackathons are also about a mindset. A mindset of trying and accepting that something may not work, and quickly moving to something else. That's what hacks are about, is trying new things.

Chris: Yes, I think that's a big thing in the DevOps pace as well, right? This idea of experimentation. This idea that we're not always going to make the perfect system. We're not always going to make the perfect thing, but let's try it. Let's prove it out. You and I both know this mantra - “Fail fast”. Fail as quick as you can. Learn from it, move on and be bigger and better the next time you go and try that thing.

Maria: Exactly - The learn, build, share approach.

Chris: Absolutely, absolutely. So then, if we think about some of those organisations that we typically work with as well then. Some of them are very good at this type of thing, where they will go and take an idea, run with it, build it, try it out, fail, start again, keep growing, keep growing and get where they need to go. What do you think some other organisations could learn from this? So maybe those organisations that aren't as agile and aren't reacting as quickly to things, let's say. Is there anything that you think they could learn from these kind of hackathon approaches? Maybe they could try out some of their scenarios? POC types of things? How have you seen that working out? Because I know you mentioned you've done this with a few enterprise scenarios as well, so I'd be intrigued on how you've seen that working as well?

Maria: Sure. I can understand while taking your devs our for two, three or four days out of their normal role to try something (that may or may not work) can seem quite scary from a big enterprise organization perspective. However, I would say with the mindset - that in those three or four days, you definitely have an answer if this is something that will suit the organisation or not - It is worth taking the risk. I often hear - I work a lot with the services from the AI (Artificial Intelligence) stack that we have. Sometimes I hear that “Oh, I'm not sure if that will work”. So, I think that maybe a hackathon type of approach - spending two or three days, trying to pull together a POC (Proof of concept) can definitely lead to a good result, and to a quicker decision as well I would say. I know I mentioned the AI (Artificial Intelligence) workloads, but it's not just about the shiny, new, cool things. I know in our team, we do a lot of lift and shift(so some data centre migration, right), and I know actually about a hackathon that one of our colleagues tried to do, to put - for a week - the customer and partners working together, trying to do that. So, there are different ways and it is not only just for the new and shiny I would say. It's good for any kind of workload up there.

Chris: Yeah, it could be to go and modernise something. It could be just to build a new functionality. It doesn't have to be - as you say - the new and shiny. It could be that that legacy application. It's still there, but you need to comply with some kind of external events and you need to build up that functionality. The main thing (that maybe we haven't said yet). We're all people who love technology, and let's bring it back to that point earlier, where you mentioned those people that have never developed anything and developed their first app. I think it's bringing that kind of excitement to people, isn't it? Because I'm sure there are times where in the day-to-day, there are certain technologies that we work with or certain things… Yeah it can get frustrating when we don't fully understand the technology, how it works, or how it all pins together. But, that moment when you come together, maybe as a group and do this kind of hackathon experience… actually get that thing working. It's that sense of achievement and that sense of excitement, and why we're all in this industry - right? This idea of being able to use technology to solve some kind of problem. I think that's really what we try to get out of it, isn't it?

Maria: Exactly. And, I'm glad you mentioned it coming together as a team as well, because this can be a really good team building experience as well. Putting everyone in the same room or some rooms for a couple of days, working towards the same problem, everyone bringing their own a skills and ideas it can be great right.

Chris: Absolutely. And, I think that's a really vital point - isn't it? Everyone thinks that hackathon means developer, and it doesn't necessarily. You need people who can plan. You need people who can design. You need people who can develop. You need the data scientists. Depending on that problem domain and what exactly are trying to achieve, you need different perspectives, different mindsets and again - it's that idea of being inclusive - giving everyone the opportunity to bring their skillset and really approach that problem.

Maria: Oh, yeah absolutely - and you don't need to be a developer in order to be able to participate and bring value and valuable input, I would say - to such projects - as well so completely agree on that side.

Chris: What would you say is the most interesting thing that you've seen being built, or the most exciting thing - and - the thing that really stands out to you? When you think of all those hackathons you've been involved with, is there anything particularly interesting that you have a story around “Yeah, that was particularly cool!"?

Maria: So, I have taken part in one hackathon with one of our customers and we built this really cool chat bot project. The customer is a big supermarket and it was really cool because we tried solve the problem of going to the shop and realising they don't have what you're looking for. So all the chat was connected to the back end data - basically the stock databases. So, you could check beforehand what's in the store. And, what was really cool as well - with some sensors placed in the store - you could also find where they are. Because, let's be honest - we've all got lost at some point in a supermarket. Or, we've lost some friends in a supermarket. So what that tried to tackle was also the location in the place. There was no smoke and mirrors (as we sometimes say in the tech world, right?) So, it was really cool to see that actually working. So, that's one of the cool projects that I've seen as well

Chris: I think that's especially relevant given the times that we're going through, and some people not being able to get their toilet roll and other things with the current events going on in the world. So, very very worthy and a very relevant scenario I think to what's going on in current events there.

Maria: Exactly.

Chris: Awesome. So are you still doing lots of hackathons? Are you still getting involved in those as well?

Maria: I still try to get involved when I can, especially - maybe in over the weekend events. Diversity events are very close to my heart, so whenever I get a chance to volunteer, just help at the event, or mentor - I try to put my hand up. But as well, if there is an opportunity with our customers as well - I try and help or offer my help as well .

Chris: Sure. Maybe as a as a closing point here then, what would you say to anyone who's listening in and thinking - “Right, this hackathon idea sounds really cool. But, i don't quite feel confident enough to run my own… but I want to either get involved in one, or maybe help out with one in some way”. What would you say they should do? How do they get started? Where do they go? What do they start thinking about?

Maria: Sure. So, I'm sure we have a mix of audience here. For some folks that do not work at Microsoft, there are loads of meetups out there every month on different teams. So go to those meet ups. There are loads of folks that organise hackathons themselves there, so using this networking part to get involved. I know getting involved in the first hackathon can seem pretty scary, as many folks see it as a competition - and it's certainly not. So, maybe just putting your hand up to volunteer - that can be a good way. Following a hash tag on twitter with the location where you are and the different type of events going on, that may be one good place to start. As well, for more of the Microsoft audience - I know we have loads of internal open hackathons actually, to the public going on. So, that may be a another way as well. Checking the twitter handles, that's where I would start.

Chris: Excellent. Well, Maria, thank you so much! I think there's plenty throughout this episode that we've learned about. For example, how hackathons are similar and share some of these concepts relating to DevOps, relating to things like requirements which we spoke about numerous times in Cloud with Chris. It's also an accelerator for those kind of organisations that might be either starting their journey into cloud or might be further along in the cloud, and they're just trying something new. Maybe there re energising something, they're modernising, they're trying something new. What I'm hearing is hackathons are so relevant here, and could be a new way to invigorate some of their teams and get people excited about that journey they are on. So thank you for sharing the story, and thank you for sharing some of your tips and tricks here. I think they are very valuable for folks listening in

Maria: No problem, Chris! Thank you so much for having me. If there is anything I can do - actually referring to your last question - in terms of hackathons… Folks can find me on LinkedIn or Twitter, so I'm happy to help where I can as well.

Chris: Thank you, Maria! And thank you again everyone for listening in again.

Well, there's certainly a lot for us to consider there! Remember, you don't have to be a developer to get involved in hackathons! Likewise, as we learned from Maria - it can be a brilliant way for you to try out a brand new skill. Making sure that you go in with a clear purpose and desired outcome is crucial. So, take a look on your favourite search engine and also have a scan through twitter for Hackathon opportunities, or of course - you could organise your own!

Do you have a topic that you want to talk to me about? Or do you have someone in mind that could be great to interview? Then please get in touch on Facebook or Twitter @cloudwithchris. Or alternatively, submit suggestions or book a slot on my website, https://www.cloudwithchris.com. Thanks again for tuning in, and until next time - Goodbye!


Maria Vrabie

Maria Vrabie

Maria is an engineer working in the FastTrack for Azure team within the Engineering organization at Microsoft. She is currently helping various businesses implement Azure solutions focusing on Intelligent agents, Cognitive Services, as well as analytics. Hackathons enthusiast and inclusion advocate, she has been volunteering or mentoring at different STEM events since her time back in university.


Chris Reddington

Chris Reddington

Welsh Tech Geek, Cloud Advocate, Musical Theatre Enthusiast and Improving Improviser! Chris is currently a Senior Engineer on Microsoft's FastTrack for Azure team. Read More