Failure > success: 4 Chicago devs share big hackathon insights

Andreas Rekdal
March 15, 2018

Hackathons are a time-honored tradition that allow engineers to experiment with new technologies and take action on big ideas they’ve been mulling over for months.

But what hackathons actually look like differs significantly from company to company. We asked engineers at two Chicago tech companies about their favorite projects, and how hackathons help keep their skills on the cutting edge.

 

solstice chicago tech company
image via solstice

As a consulting firm that specializes in pushing its clients’ technology strategies forward, Solstice has an internal division devoted entirely to research and development. But in the time leading up to its annual innovation conference, Solstice FWD, the company involves engineers from across the team in weekly hackathons.

During those hackathons, engineers help the Solstice Labs team develop new types of customer experiences. Past hackathon projects include a robotic butler, a connected beer vending machine, a chatbot, a real-time sensor-driven data fabric and a mixed reality rock band experience. This year, the team is stepping up its efforts around blockchain. Solstice also hosts a global 24-hour hackathon for employees around the world.

Failure during our hackathons is just as valuable as the success of what we set out to achieve.”

What have you worked on during recent hackathons?

“Recently we have been focused on the experiences for our annual digital innovation summit, Solstice FWD,” said senior technical consultant Jarrod Luker. “These include technologies involving blockchain, augmented intelligence, machine learning and virtual reality. Our engineers meet twice a week in the evenings to share the results of their explorations and to build and iterate on their ideas. One recent hackathon resulted in the building of an RFID tag reading system to help uniquely identify the attendees of our conference. This included a fun mix of hardware, firmware and backend services.”

 

What have you learned from the hackathons you’ve participated in?

“Executed around a lightweight client engagement experience, our hackathons are structured enough to ensure productivity but kept open-minded so as not to hinder creativity,” said Luker. “They often go way beyond just learning a new technology. They serve as a chance to work with colleagues from other teams, share ideas on implementations, experiment with methodologies such as extreme programming and bring all these back to our delivery best practices. We have learned that failure during our hackathons is just as valuable as the success of what we set out to achieve.”

 

How do hackathons help your engineering team stay sharp?

“Hackathons fulfill an essential need for our engineers,” said Luker. “Often, they want a creative outlet other than their client engagements, and hackathons serve as a chance to reach beyond their day-to-day activities. Our engineers are constantly looking at what’s next in the technology pipeline — that next wave. The exploratory nature of a hackathon is where our engineers really get to dive into what makes that technology useful and relevant.”

 

peak6 chicago investment firm
image via peak6

An investment firm headquartered in the Board of Trade Building, PEAK6 relies on proprietary technology to spot trading opportunities other firms might miss. To help its tech team stay on the cutting edge, the firm hosts two-day hackathons on a quarterly basis, in which participants can explore solutions for any problem they’re interested in — inside or outside the realm of finance.

Recent PEAK6 hackathon projects include setting up an internal initial coin offering, developing new ways to visualize multidimensional data and creating a new internal system for setting up meetings and booking rooms. And participation is open to non-engineers as well.

Developers have greater freedom to experiment and prototype, focusing on the nuts and bolts.”

What is your favorite kind of hackathon project?

“My favorite type of project is one where I can actually deliver to completion something of real value for the team or myself,” said software engineer Paul Whalen. “Typically, I’ll come up with an idea, like a FIX message simulator to make testing a trading application easier, a week or so in advance. I’ll do lots of thinking about it, then I’ll hit the ground running the day the hackathon starts and I won’t stop until I have something that can possibly be described as complete. I like embracing the spirit of hackathons — building something cool quickly, without stopping to think about whether I’m doing something the most correct way. This contrasts most software development, but I think it’s a great skill to keep sharp.”

 

What have you learned from the hackathons you’ve participated in?

“We learn about technologies used in domains we were unfamiliar with,” said senior software engineer Patrick Wong. “We also get to work with people we don’t typically work with on a day-to-day basis and brush up on the skills needed to coordinate cross-team efforts.”

 

How do hackathons help your engineering team stay sharp?

“They give developers the chance to work on something new and exciting, which might lead to experiences with new tools, libraries or frameworks that we can leverage elsewhere,” said software engineer Luke Peeler. “Developers have greater freedom to experiment and prototype, focusing on the nuts and bolts of what they’re working on more so than the business context or a project deadline. Hackathons are also a great opportunity for developers to cultivate stronger relationships with other teams in a cross-functional setting and get a better understanding of how value is created for the business.”

 

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