What the heck is a Hackathon?

I guess I would define it as “a code development marathon conducted in an exhilarating hacking atmosphere.”

spying (illustrative computer screen) 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
spying (illustrative computer screen) 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What would be a perfect way to fire up inspiration and creativity in us “technology workers”? Maybe a day at the Cinerama with an amazing buffet, or a trip through the outback on jeeps and kayaks? I would say, no doubt those diversions can be a lot of fun. But how about if you liberate us from our daily routine of specs and deadlines for a little while? Let us really take off with our own initiative, creativity and expertise, and collaborate in interdisciplinary teams to see what we can build.
This dream came true when recently the company organized our first ever Hackathon at Siemens PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) in Israel. I guess I would define it as “a code development marathon conducted in an exhilarating hacking atmosphere.” This kind of event has been hosted recently at other companies, and it is sometimes also called a “Hack Fest,” “Ship it Day,” “FedEx Day” and more. And it really gave us a day and a half of freedom to “hack away” in small teams, bunching together programmers, product managers, software architects, quality engineers and tech writers.
We spent that time closely collaborating on some of the most innovative ideas that we ourselves proposed. From the honk of the bike horn that started us off at 9 a.m. the first morning, until 27 hours later when the horn sounded again to tell us “that’s it,” our level of adrenaline was incredible. We arrived excited and a bit anxious to take up positions behind our laptops and workstations.
Many stayed on into the wee hours to make sure we would fulfill the contest’s tenets to get an up-and-running project ready in the allotted time. And that the ideas should be relevant to our company’s technologies, and that we’d be able to demonstrate the business potential.
Simple rules, but also extremely challenging, especially with just a day and half to go from zero to “working version.”
But with real teamwork and our most precious asset, the “Yes we can!” attitude, every team completed its project.
The organizers arranged a refreshing surprise during those intense, extended hours – two trained masseurs roamed the space offering brief shoulder/upperarm massages. Believe me, it certainly helped to calm the nerves.
Then the horn sounded and time was up! As we rose from our chairs, rubbed our eyes and stretched, we were reminded that there was an hour for lunch before judging would begin. When we returned, refreshed from the midday meal, the panel of judges was just getting seated. They included Siemens PLM Software CEO Chuck Grindstaff, who had flown in from the US; Zvi Feuer, senior vice president; Eliezer “Izzy” Tokman, CEO of Siemens Israel; and Sigal Berman, professor of industrial engineering and management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who is an expert in our field of computerized manufacturing design and validation/simulation (“digital manufacturing”).
Fourteen teams participated in our Hackathon. Each team got seven minutes to present the project, explain its innovativeness and value, and like entrepreneurs, demonstrate the commercial possibilities.
Below are just a few of the exceptional projects the teams presented:
• A gamification idea, to help users learn a robotics application interactively by going through a series of increasingly challenging game rounds and earn points for success in using the software.
• Really innovative hands-free work instructions. Floor workers use special glasses that display the tasks graphically and textually in front of their eyes; no need to work a monitor or hold a mobile device to get the instruction steps. The glasses’ built-in camera captures the progress of a task performed by the worker, and the system intelligently recognizes when a phase has been completed.
It then displays the next work instruction.
• In parallel windows, display a video clip showing how to operate a software command, while the other window scrolls the related help documentation in sync with the movie. A drop-down menu allows you to change the language of both the text and video narration.
It’s true that just one team earned the trophy, but the achievements of all the groups topped everyone’s expectations.
The results of our Hackathon impressed management and organizational leaders so much that an additional Hackathon was organized at our offices in Pune, India.
I guess the most important beneficiaries were us, since through our collaborative participation we gave expression to our deep innovativeness and creativity with some amazing initiatives.
Adam Dales is the technical publications manager at Siemens PLM Software Israel.