At the Microsoft global Hackathon, customers break something to make something

Summer is a time for growth. Whether you’re traveling to an historical destination or picking out a book for the beach, the season is ripe for taking a break from the grind to focus on introspection and renewal, to make new friends, re-connect with old ones, and create shared experiences together. With any luck, come autumn you have a sharpened mind and a greater sense of where you want to go next.

Which is why summer is the ideal time for the Microsoft global Hackathon. Minds will be sharpened, advancement made tangible, and friends with diverse backgrounds will be brought together to create shared experiences.

By now you’re probably aware of the 27,000 employees who gather at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington campus and 45 venues around the world, embracing the event (part of One Week – a series celebrating the company’s people, products and ideas) as a platform for innovation. But at the 6th annual installment, there’s another rapidly growing segment that deserves its own spotlight: customer collaborations.

Two participants wave
More than 30 customer teams join 27,000 Microsoft employees at the 2019 Microsoft global Hackathon. (Photo by Scott Eklund, Red Box Pictures)

“We started inviting customers two years ago,” explains Susie Kandzor, group program manager at The Garage, an experimentation and growth program at Microsoft that produces the Hackathon to further its mission of encouraging collaboration, creativity and experimentation. “In 2017, we only had four customers join us. Last year we had 10 customers join us, and the feedback from executive leadership was that they loved it and wanted more.”

For the 2019 installment, the largest private hackathon on the planet welcomes some 30 companies (a dozen more will participate around the globe). Each sends three to five representatives, cross-functionality encouraged, arriving with wildly diverse business hurdles they hope to jump – and confidence that the latest technological breakthroughs can get them there.

“This is how we channel innovation into a focused effort,” says Angela Yochem, executive vice president/chief digital and technology officer for Novant Health, a network of healthcare providers that attended the global Hackathon in 2018 and is sending two teams this year from their offices in North Carolina.

“Remember in the movie ‘Apollo 13,’ where there’s something wrong with the spacecraft and all the engineers get together, spill parts all over a table, and using their past experiences and backgrounds, solve the problem? A Hackathon is that, on steroids.”

A doctor uses a touch-screen device to consult with a patient.
By leveraging technology, Novant Health is improving the health of its community. (Photo courtesy of Novant Health)

“We’re going to talk about the art of the possible,” agrees Kirk Windisch, Novant Health’s vice president of Digital Products and Services. “I’m excited to find solutions that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

The 2019 list of customer attendees is as diverse as it is impressive. Where else could you find 3M, Starbucks, Mastercard and Blackbaud under one roof? From meals (Nestle) to electricity (Chesapeake Energy) to investments (Vanguard), you’d be hard-pressed to find a greater range of industries innovating alongside one another.

“In the past we’ve seen a lot of instances where companies talk between themselves, and the Microsoft Hackathon has introduced different companies to one another. We’re just humbled by the enthusiasm our customers have toward hacking, and honored that these customers have given us the opportunity to help develop their growth ideas,” Kandzor says of the Hackathon’s unique atmosphere.

One customer attending Hackathon 2019 is Bellevue, Washington-based T-Mobile – a company with over 80 million customers and annual revenues of $43 billion – wearing their self-proclaimed moniker of “The Un-carrier” with disruptive pride. Principal analyst Sarah O’Brien says T-Mobile is perfectly positioned for the Hackathon experience.

Two T-Mobile employees collaborate at a workstation.
T-Mobile employees, who proudly sport their branded black and magenta, are encouraged to share ideas that lead to new technology solutions. (Photo courtesy of T-Mobile)

“I was at a conference not long ago, and my takeaway was the sheer volume of publishing, whitepapers and patents around machine learning and AI coming out of Microsoft ­– the true investment in it – and the notion that rather than treating it like a buzzword, there is thought leadership and movement to drive it forward for everyone,” she says.

“Our companies have a lot of shared experience and recognition that what made you successful in the past does not guarantee success in the future, so I’m excited that we can put these great teams together and build something impactful.”

Novant Health has over 650 locations in five states, and provides increased access to care through digital channels, and through advanced tech in their hospitals and physician centers. “We just deployed an AI-based system for treating stroke patients faster than ever before,” says Yochem, citing one exciting example. “With a stroke victim, every minute matters, and now we are able to save many more lives. It’s an example of how leveraging technology can impact the health of our community.”

Two Novant Health employees consult monitors at a nursing station.
Novant Health team members train on new technology at patient check-in. (Photo courtesy of Novant Health)

And while Novant Health’s goal is nothing short of saving lives, other companies may simply seek to improve the quality of life.

“We’re empowered to achieve more, simply by combining forces,” says Jan-Jaap Oosterwijk, global head of innovation for digital platform security firm Irdeto, who is flying in with his team from The Netherlands. “I love the diversity of the event. I also really like that in the invitation, it was specified that the team doesn’t need to consist of engineers only. The Hackathon is open to people from any background, which will provide a wide range of perspectives.”

There are a lot of great brains working together at the global Hackathon, using a variety of technologies (last year, efforts focused on everything from artificial technology to sustainable farming). Much like a summer cookout, each customer brings their own specialty – in this case, a hack.

The user interface of Lowe's augmented reality app.
The augmented reality mobile app developed by Lowe’s allows customers to envision products…
A Lowe's customer uses the company's AR mobile app to imagine a grill on his patio.
… like this premium grill, in their own homes and backyards. (Photos courtesy of Lowe’s)

“We’ll be fielding three teams of three, each looking at a different area,” says Cheryl Friedman, vice president of Lowe’s Innovation Labs and a leading proponent of tech-based solutions for the home improvement chain. “One is focused around our customers’ in-store experience – how they navigate, learn about products and use them while in the store. We’ll also be experimenting with a chatbot that generates personalized product recommendations for our customers.

“Finally, we’ll be working on enhancing our 3D scanning and modeling by utilizing the Kinect Developer Toolkit,” she adds, citing functionality on the Lowe’s website that allows customers to engage with products in interactive ways, enabling them to feel more confident while considering a purchase.

A CN locomotive.
CN’s hack will focus on predictability and reliability across its 20,000 North American miles. (Photo courtesy of CN)

Then there is CN, the North-American transportation and logistics company, celebrating its 100th anniversary by embracing technology that their company’s founders could never have envisioned. The Montreal-based team made the pilgrimage armed with copious amounts of data, hopeful that machine learning can effectively automate their analytical model building.

“The hack idea we’ve come up with is based on our desire to create better predictability and reliability for our customers,” says Michael Foster, CN’s executive vice president and chief technology officer.

“So, we will be bringing 10 years of data on the speed at which goods traveled through our network, overlay that with weather patterns, the volumes on the network and other factors that would have impacted our velocity,” he says of CN’s expansive network covering 20,000 tri-coastal miles throughout Canada and down to the Gulf of Mexico.

A CN employee inspects a rail car.
CN car mechanics and billers were instrumental in helping IT design a mobile app for car repair billing. (Photo courtesy of CN)

When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella coined the phrase “tech intensity,” he defined it as the need for every company – regardless of whether it’s a railroad, a phone carrier, or some other industry – to adopt best-in-class technology and build their own unique digital capabilities. With each passing year, the Hackathon (launched the year Nadella became CEO) is becoming a grander manifestation of that ideal.

Tech intensity spans all industries, because when the population is living in an increasingly connected world, companies aren’t competing against rivals so much as customer expectations that on-demand requests and accessibility will be harnessed wherever they go.

“Over the last several years we’ve tried to take all these cool ideas we have from folks internally and turn them into something that’s tangible, something that will help our technology,” says Oosterwijk of Irdeto, whose hack will use AI and machine learning to diagnose abnormalities in user activity, identifying security threats for such businesses. “One of the great things about working with the Microsoft team – and this hack event speaks to it ­– is the commitment to innovation.”

An irdeto employee holds a laptop.
Irdeto is constantly innovating to combat piracy and cybercrime that threaten digital platforms, operators, content owners and rights holders. (Photo courtesy of Irdeto)

As cutting-edge as the conversations may become, the allure of the Hackathon format might just reside in its primal simplicity. Because sometimes the best way to fix a problem is to get everyone together face-to-face, spill everything onto the table and work together to find a solution.

Lowe’s Friedman agrees: “It really helps focus the team on what is critical to prototype the concept in a very quick and easy way. Hackathons eliminate distractions and the tendency to overproduce, taking you down to the core of what you need to do in a short amount of time and how you are going to do it. It’s an invigorating environment to be in, and a lot of great things come from it.”

It would seem likely that those great things last, as Nadella has cited a Boston University study concluding that when employees contribute to building their own technology, productivity increases and their companies often leapfrog the competition.

“T-Mobile takes pride in our culture of getting things done, especially for customers – if that means you have to make something, break something, invent something, that’s just what you do to deliver,” agrees O’Brien, displaying a common mindset among the Hackathon customer group that the work being done here could positively impact tens of thousands of employees.

T-Mobile's T-Racer machine learning-powered remote-controlled car.
T-Mobile’s T-Racer is powered by machine learning and edge computing.
T-Mobile's machine learning-powered car, the T-Racer.
(Photos by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

“We have such a diverse employee base, and all those voices and ideas are welcome and will drive us forward. You can see that day-to-day if you came to our campus. If you walk the halls, everyone’s in their black and magenta and dressing on brand. It’s because we have owned such a change, and are making a difference. Proprietary technology has a huge, huge impact.”

To develop these technologies, each participating company cites an openness to look to one another for inspiration – but that doesn’t mean their work cultures aren’t sometimes very different.

In devising Irdeto’s proposed hack, for instance, the company started with a problem and then worked backward toward a possible solution. Lowe’s, meanwhile, focused on customers while utilizing their direct feedback. T-Mobile will demonstrate a remote-controlled car to promote and demystify machine learning and edge computing – a paradigm that relocates computation from data centers to a network’s edge, thereby increasing response time.

“We’re training a machine learning model to drive the car, and looking at the efficiency of learning across Wi-Fi, 4G and 5G connections,” O’Brien says of the modified RC car called T-Racer, which will drive around a small race track attempting to properly navigate yellow lines and obstacles.

Another manifestation of varying work cultures is how each company plans to go about solving their hack. Much like college, game plans included preparation and study for some, all-nighters for others.

Irdeto employees collaborate in front of a panel of large computer screens.
Irdeto’s Security Operations Center (SOC) provides 24/7 monitoring and rapid response for its customers. (Photo courtesy of Irdeto)

“We’re definitely the latter,” laughs Irdeto’s Oosterwijk. “I think you need a team of people and not just the kind that sticks to their day job, but people who can break free.”

“We have been actively preparing for the Hackathon for a couple months now, ever since we received the invitation,” Friedman says of the Lowe’s plan. “We want to utilize every moment that we’re there; we’ll be coming in with specific focus areas, so we can dive right in.”

“I think we have a little bit of both,” O’Brien says of the T-Mobile team. “You do what you have to do to meet the goal. If that means staying up rethinking and breaking something to make it better, then the team will be there at four in the morning with Red Bulls in hand.”

As the 2019 customer collaboration group dives into the Microsoft global Hackathon, they hope to bask in the warmth of shared experience, skilled assistance, growth – and breakthrough solutions. If all goes well, who knows? Maybe they’ll even find time to share some book recommendations.