Don’t be afraid to take part in Hackathons as a ‘non-techie’

Two months ago I took part in Accenture’s global Artificial Intelligence Hackathon after some encouragement from a colleague. I’ve always been interested in AI (especially since Tim Urban’s blog post) but was hesitant at first because I’ve always viewed hackathons as one of those things outside of my domain. My greatest ‘achievements’ in computing were html / CSS blogskins a decade ago — those who used Blogger in the past would understand. So when it comes to hackathons, I’ve always felt like an outlier looking across the street at a house party, not having the guts to join in. But that colleague said some things which changed my mind, and I will go on to share some of them here.

With his encouragement, I signed up, managed to get through about 20% of the learning materials the organisers shared, got extremely confused, and at one point found myself inundated with different application windows, tutorials and web searches about debugging errors sprawled across my screens. But come the day of the hackathon, I pulled myself out of bed, slapped on my ‘fake it till you make it’ determination, met up with the team in office and ‘hacked’ for the next 2 days. Just a week ago, we received news that we beat 92 teams globally and won 2nd place. Not just that. I also didn’t write a single line of code.

This was my first hackathon so I wouldn’t claim to know a lot, but in writing this I hope to encourage those of us with little or no technical skills to not feel intimidated by hackathons and hold ourselves back from joining.

Some of the participants from the Singapore office

Why you should join a hackathon as a ‘non-techie’:

Most hackathons are planned for you to learn and have fun.

If you’re keen to start building up technical knowledge, having a hackathon in your horizon gives you the pressure and motivation to take time out and pick up a new language, technology or skill. We all get more serious with our learning when we know there are deadlines and expectations. The hackathon itself is also a great learning opportunity with mentors and many other proficient coders around to help you navigate the challenges you may face.But above all, who doesn’t like to have fun? Just bring along your personality and an open mind.

For me as a strategy consultant, we speak about these emerging technologies all the time on a surface-level we sometimes disguise as a ‘high-level’ point of view. But not many actually know the technologies two-levels deep, have interacted with them and understand how their architecture usually maps out. This hackathon itself taught me a lot regarding implementation of AI technologies.

Diversity isn’t just beneficial for problem solving and ideation. It is vital.

Hackathons are designed to bring minds together to solve problems. Be it diversity in your knowledge, career, life experiences or perspectives, when it comes to ideation and understanding the viability of your envisioned product, the diverse teams certainly benefit more. As I’ve once heard — and I’m certain I’m misphrasing this:

“In a meeting when there are two of the same people in the room, one of them isn’t necessary.”

My team was made up of Amin, an Iranian UI/UX developer, Artemis, an analytics senior manager originally from Greece and myself, a strategy consultant from Singapore. We each interpreted the problem statement in a slightly different way and could debate and re-frame the problems. The same is true when we’re thinking about the features and use-cases of our product, or trying to build a business case around it.

Everyone has skills to contribute.

It may be true that development and engineering is becoming increasingly more important in companies, but not one company can operate without their business, operations, marketing, design or legal teams. In the context of a hackathon, I can easily ramble off a dozen things a non-technical person can contribute in. Not convinced? Try me — ideation, justifying the business case, giving user feedback on the product, design work and wire-frames, project management, leading the team, marketing the product, delivering the sales pitch etc., even down to entertaining the team. The point being: if you understand what your strengths are and how you can contribute to the team, there will be a role for you.

We spent the first two hours of the hackathon brainstorming the ideas, mapping out the supporting architecture and figuring out our roles within the team.

Despite not writing a line of code myself, our team built up a Facebook chatbot called Lucy, which serves as a digital learning advisor who can recommend MOOCs to learners. I developed the idea out of my own experiences searching for online MOOCs and finding difficulty in coming up with a learning plan. Amin has experimented with chatbots, so we chose Facebook Messenger as a UI and he led the set up. Artemis worked using Node.js to connect to a server and set up the database we’ll require. Amin then plugged in and built our chatbot on api.ai while I mapped out the user journey and intent scenarios for the chatbot interactions. I created the PowerPoint presentation (yes, PPT as one of the deliverables because we are consultants) and lastly, Artemis did up the video for our product demo to be submitted. None of these were roles we formalised before the hackathon started.

Conclusion

Like they sometimes say: try and fail but don’t fail to try.

Don’t be afraid to go ahead and sign up for a hackathon. With a growing number of them around, you can easily find one in the next couple of months. Be it meeting new people, learning new skills or putting ideas into action, there is always something for you to gain, as well as somewhere you can make a valuable contribution to.

Background:

The hackathon (titled AI4Good) was the second in a series of three Artificial Intelligence hackathons organised by Accenture. AI4Good was focused on using AI to “develop solutions to support students, job seekers and entrepreneurs to build skills to thrive in the digital economy”. It was held across all of Accenture’s global offices, but very kindly limited to business hours (9 hours a day) within the duration of two days to keep our sanity and health in place.

Note: this is a re-post from my personal blog.