My experience at the Capital One #HackingChicago Hackathon

This weekend Capital One held their inaugural Hacking Chicago hackathon at their Chicago Atrium location. I learned about the event through the Women in Computer Science newsletter. I’m very new to hackathons and the idea of using my tech skills to solve problems for non-profits and the community was very appealing.

I’d only participated in one hackathon before this and saw this as an opportunity to not only prepare myself for the upcoming HackIllinois event but also to learn about Capital One and what a corporate hackathon might be like. It was very unique in the fact that they offered the opportunity for teams to work on the open-source projects after the competition.I was very impressed that they selected not one but two non-profits, Moneythink and GoodCity Chicago to provide a Proof of Concept (POC) for.

Day 1: I was blown away by everything they provided for all of us, transportation, very nice accommodations, and lots of fantastic food. We recieved a very warm welcome after arriving to the Chicago atrium. we were greeted, given a tour of the office and an introduction about the event. We ate dinner and met our mentors for the weekend. I have to mention the Atrium again, it is a beautiful space and the Capital One office is nothing short of amazing. It set the tone for innovation over the weekend.

Megan and me!

One of the first things that I noticed is that all of the students were from UIUC, I was only 1 of 2 women participating, the only person from my Information Sciences program at the iSchool and that I was the only person of color. I immediately connected with Megan Coleman, a Computer Engineering student who would become my teammate. We bonded instantly over the fact that we were the only girls in the room and we decided right then and there would team up.

After dinner we were introduced to representatives from the two non-profits and given a high level overview of each of their problem statements. We had a few minutes to recruit mentors and other team members for our team. It was tough to decide which problem to work on because they all were great projects but we chose to work on College Coach Portfolio Management System for Moneythink.

The College Coach problem resonated with me the most because I was exactly the kind of student that they are aiming to help with their platform. I was a first generation college student, tuition was expensive and as an undergraduate I worked 4 jobs during each quarter to try and prevent having to take out student loans and it still wasn’t enough. Ultimately, I ended up taking out a few loans so I could finish school. Navigating that process from high school though college was difficult and having a tool like this would have been extremely helpful.

We asked a few preliminary questions of our new “customers” to find out what their vision was for the product and headed off to find a solution for them. Each team was given a room to work in, with whiteboard walls, post it notes and our mentors. From the start we used Agile to plan out goals for the POC. We weren’t sure how far we would get over the weekend but our mentors made sure we didn’t get too bogged down with having a complete working product, instead we were to focus on having a great MVP to show at the end of the weekend.

Sprint planning

Day 2:
The weather was really nice for this time of the year. Having lots of sunshine made for a very productive day. After breakfast, we headed to our rooms to start hammering out the technical details for our project. In our first sprint we created a backlog of features and questions to follow up on. Both of the non profits were on-site and that was very helpful in guiding our design and development process. Prior to the hackathon, a slack channel was created for teams and mentors to communicate. We could ask for tech support and request resources for our project. It proved to be invaluable when we got stuck on a problem.

We tackled UX/UI next and started with creating our mock ups. After doing a bit of research our team decided to use Adobe Experience Design to create the user flow. We taught ourselves that morning and it allowed us to create our wireframes quickly, which gave us the ability to focus on building the prototype and creating our pitch deck. After a few iterations and some feedback from Moneythink, we set up our git repository and started to build the MVP.

Screenshot from the Wireframe/User Flow

While it was a not a competitive hackathon, the real prize was being able to create something and give back to organizations that do tremendous work for the community. We tossed around a few ideas on which web development platform would be the best solution. Having expert technical mentors gave us insight into the real world of rapid development in software engineering. We decided to use the MEAN javascript stack with Amazon Web Services (AWS).

The time flew by very quickly, meals were catered with lots of snacks throughout the weekend giving us plenty of energy to work throughout the day and late hours in the evening. Later in the day we took a break and participated in a team building exercise. Everyone ran around popping balloons, with the winner being the last person standing with an un-popped balloon. It was a lot of fun, no one had a balloon by the time were done. The point of the exercise however, is that we could have worked together and not popped any balloons so that everyone could win. By the end of the day 2, we had a working MVP and needed to finalize our pitch deck.

Blowing up my balloon!

Day 3:
It was our final day. You could tell everyone was intensely focused during breakfast, not very much small talk at all. Very soon we would have to present our projects to the non-profits and would be going home. As we put the finishing touches on our pitch deck and made a few minor changes to the MVP, we learned how to build an automation script to deploy our site on AWS. Before we knew it, the big moment finally arrived. It was time to present our MVP to the judges. We were given hackathon t-shirts to wear for our presentations and gathered for the judging session. We were a little nervous because we were working on finishing up our project and it was down to the wire.

Each team presented their products to a panel of judges consisting of representatives from the Moneythink, Goodcity, and the Capital One volunteers. We felt really good about what we’d accomplished in such a short amount of time but the other projects were impressive as well. We restated the business problem, went over the value proposition, did a brief demo and described the technologies used. The judges asked various questions about challenges faced in creating the solution and more detail about which technical resources were used to build each product.

Our final prototype

While the judges went to deliberate, we relaxed and mingled with other teams. They handed out ice cream and it was the perfect way to calm the butterflies we had about the pitch competition. We were asked to give feedback about the event, things to improve and things that worked well. I can’t think of anything that could have made it better other than diversity. We need more representation of women and people of color in tech as a whole. I think one way to achieve that is by encouraging more people to apply to hackathons. The planning team did an excellent job of putting the event together. They also shared information about job opportunities at Capital One. I can definitely say that after my experience this weekend, it’s on my radar to apply. I’m graduating soon and if the hackathon is anything like working there, it seems like a great place to be.

The moment of truth finally arrived and the judges came back to announce the winners of the hackathon. Two teams were selected, one for each organization. We waited to hear the name for the Moneythink project winner and then the judges called our team. It felt absolutely amazing. We really enjoyed working with each other on the project and the long hours paid off. It wouldn’t have been possible without our mentors. The winning teams were given Amazon gift cards and everyone was given a Capital One swag bag to take home.

From Left to Right: Shravan Reddy, Bharath Chekuri, me, Liz Pattern (Moneythink), Megan Coleman, Rafael Rezmer

As I mentioned earlier, working on the project was the real prize for me. I came away with having made new friends, added to my skillset and greater confidence. For a moment, impostor syndrome tried to sneak in, I thought to myself, can I really build something like this in a weekend? Do I have the skills? Are they good enough? The answer is YES! Each hackathon I participate in, I get a bit more confident and that little voice of doubt fades. We won! We represented for the women in Information Science and Computer Engineering. It took a moment for it to all sink in,the fact that we’d won the inaugural Capital One Hacking Chicago challenge and we were the first female team to do it was really cool!

Being a woman of color in a STEM field and knowing that something I helped to build will impact the broader community is extremely important to me. It also felt great that everyone who participated and planned the event was committed to the common goal of hacking for good, really paints a bright picture for the future of technology. Thank you again to Capital One, their amazing volunteers and Moneythink for the opportunity. I had a spectacular experience and I hope to be involved in the one next year.

Capital One Squad Goals!

Final Thoughts:
Reflecting back on the experience, I think I would offer this advice to anyone participating in a hackathon.

  1. Apply. Apply. Apply. Many people aren’t sure if they should try a hackathon because they aren’t an expert in a particular software or don’t know various coding languages. While those things are helpful, it isn’t the only skill that is valuable at a hackathon. There are many hats to wear in a hackathon. Find one that suits your interests and bring a friend.

2. Be positive, friendly and collaborative. Everyone at the event was very genuine. From the employees to people on the other teams, it was a really great environment. It was not as stressful as a traditional hackathon, but it was very intense. You have to be in a small space with people you don’t know for 48 hours. It should be a pleasant experience for everyone involved. We got along really well, learned from one another and it showed in our presentation.

3. Pace yourself.Know when to take a break. It’s easy to just power through and work but small breaks give you and your team mates an opportunity to get to know each other and have a little fun. JENGA was our go to this weekend. You will make mistakes, you can’t dwell on that during a hackathon, you literally have no time for it. A mental break is the perfect distraction.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and use your resources. There is no such thing as a dumb question. The Capital One team created a very safe space for us to say “I don’t know.” and followed that up with, we can teach you. If you don’t ask, then you won’t learn. Our mentors wanted to help us succeed, it would have been crazy to not tap into having unfettered access to experts at our finger tips. As a result we learned a new framework and how to use new technologies this weekend.

5. Remember the goal of the hackathon. While it is great if you can get a working prototype. Don’t go too far down the development rabbit hole. You can waste time creating a great product that no one will use or could possibly change. Iterate and go through as many wireframes as possible before deciding on a final infrastructure for your project.

6. Communicate with your product owner. We asked a lot of questions over the weekend. We tried getting as much feedback as we could so that we created something that they wanted and not something that we wanted to build for fun.

7. Girls, Ladies, Women. People of Color! Get out there! Representation matters. I hope that we are able to inspire more people to apply and compete.

#investedintech #lifeatcapitalone #capitalone #STEM

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