Our new series on Medium explores why we work here at Scotiabank Digital Factory: what motivates us? What drives us to work those extra hours, or push that extra line of code? For our first installation, our co-op student Jayden spoke with Randy and Tony, front-end engineers extraordinaire and the driving force behind our first 24-hour hackathon (Digital Factory Hackdays) in support of Canada Learning Code.
Scotiabank Digital Factory officially opened its doors in 2016. Can you give us some insight about what brought you to this place, and what kind of work you do here?
Tony: The same year we opened, Scotiabank’s CEO Brian Porter said: “We’re in the technology business. Our product happens to be banking, but largely that’s delivered through technology.” So the Digital Factory as a whole shows that Scotiabank is moving quickly in that direction: technology-first products and experiences with engineering at the helm. Those are the kinds of spaces I want to work in. It’s where I add the most value and do my best work. In our current project, our team is pushing the envelope for web optimization.
Randy: We know that customers leave websites — for every second a user is waiting for your page to load, 7% of them are dropping off — so we want to make sure our pages are as fast as possible. It’s about designing the best experience for our customers: that’s why I wanted to be here, and that’s why what we’re doing here is so critical.
Tony: The projects here are always customer-centric. You know, you get live feedback from users, you do user testing, find what works what doesn’t work and you build around that.
This was the first hackathon hosted here at the Digital Factory, and the first overnight event, full stop. How important was it for this to run smoothly?
Tony: We put a lot of time into the hackathon. We were personally invested in this and it needed to go well. I joked near the end that it felt like planning a wedding: you need to feed people, make sure they have a good time, build a playlist, block out opening and closing ceremonies, decorate…we were only missing a bride and groom!
So what motivated you guys to run this hackathon?
Randy: We’re passionate about development and we wanted to really engage all of the talent we have access to: there are great engineers, designers, product owners, data scientists, agile practitioners, and digital marketers here at the Digital Factory, throughout the GTA, and even into Waterloo with the new Scotiabank FactoryU. We wanted to find out what we could do when we brought them all into one space, and the Digital Factory has that space. It has a kind of magic behind it. We wanted people to come in and see what we’ve done here, and how the space and its people can motivate you to do your best work.
Tony: There’s so much engineering talent throughout Scotiabank, and a hackathon provides the opportunity for people to really flourish that without the red tape: to just push themselves and create. You can see from the products that came out people have created some really awesome things.
Randy: We’ve been to hackathons before, and we thought: why can’t Scotiabank do this? Why can’t Scotiabankers be the ones who drive things forward and create amazing things?
Tony: Also, three words: spicy noodle challenge. I needed to find out how much capsaicin was too much capsaicin. [both laugh]
Let’s talk about who this hackathon was for. Can you tell us more about Canada Learning Code, and why you decided to partner with them?
Tony: Canada Learning Code has been a charitable partner of Scotiabank for years, specifically supporting their Girls Learning Code program, so we’ve gotten to know them really well, in terms of just how powerful their learning experiences are. This was a great opportunity to go behind the curtain though, and see what their pain points were as they face the challenges associated with huge growth in a short span of time. Their problem statements really focused in on how to increase their reach, with a focus on reaching communities who have been traditionally underserved and underrepresented in tech.
Randy: There are still so many Canadians that don’t have access to basic technology, and don’t have the opportunity to improve their digital literacy. By helping CLC scale up now, we’re helping to shape the future technologists of tomorrow.
Tony: Their main philosophy just really touched home for us because coding is such a fundamental skill now: just as important as math, sciences, or languages is knowing how to operate a computer and how to maintain your digital literacy in the face of shifting technology.
Will Canada Learning Code be able to put the winning solution into action?
Tony: It was actually really interesting because after the judging session Aniska [CLC’s VP of Fundraising] came up to us and said that she was wowed by what Team Sanvac [the winning team] had built, and it was exactly what CLC had imagined when they came up with the problem statements. I definitely see it as something they can take away and use throughout their organization.
Would you do another hackathon again in the future? What kind of partnerships or issues would you have in mind?
Tony: We’d love to work with Canada Learning Code again, but if we consider other partners, there are a lot of directions we could move in: some hackathons tackle big issues, and some are free form, but I feel like one of the most important parts of a hackathon is the learning experience. Working with different technology and other people you haven’t met before, moving from ideation, storyboarding, and prototyping design to a final product in such a limited time span…those kinds of skills and experience are not something you can get anywhere else. That’s why hackathons are valuable for students and for engineers.
Randy: It really takes you out of your comfort zone, where you’re trying to push something and do something you’re not familiar with. For me, the primary goal of a hackathon is that you learn something new and take it forward and use it in the future. The fact that you can actually ideate something, bring something to life that you didn’t think was possible…that final product is almost secondary.
If we consider the hackathon as a learning exercise, is this kind of learning the future of Scotiabank and the Digital Factory?
Tony: I think it’s a great exercise, not only for the learning experience, but also for the cultural experience. What I’m really looking forward to is seeing these participants go back to their teams and say: “Hey, I have an idea for something we can do, I tried this in the hackathon and it worked really well.” If we could see that, it would make us really happy.
Randy: I agree. Sometimes when you’re working on a project in your day-to-day, you get so tied up in your deliverables you forget what else is out there. A hackathon is an opportunity to take a step back, find your way around tricky new material, and do whatever you want.
Tony: It’s the people that make a company, and when you host events like this, you build the kind of culture that ends up making a business successful. I’d go so far as to say that by fostering the right environment, we actually gain a competitive advantage.
Randy: We saw huge collaboration. We had people from the PLATO team [the Platform Organization], Scotiabank FactoryU, Tangerine: Scotiabank’s all stripes and colours come around and there was this huge sense of comradery to work together and build amazing things. Even though some of them were meeting each other for the first time, they could come together and build something as friends.
Tony: That was one of the more amazing things, because Scotiabank has so many buildings and offices all over the city, even in Waterloo — rarely has there has been that opportunity for all of those people to come together and collaborate at one time.
Randy: So it’s creating new opportunities and bridging those gaps, which I think you can lose in these big companies. It’s important for us to retain a kind of small-company identity, where it doesn’t need to be a huge process to go and talk to someone else. You can organically run into someone working on something awesome, and help them build something even better. All in a day’s work.