Hackathon Tips

fall 2012 hackNY student hackathonLast week, I participated in my first Hackathon. It was an internal one for Telstra employees, but there were around 40-50 people involved, and my team ended up winning – which was awesome. However, the experience of being part was a reward in itself, with the collective energy creating a real buzz, and there was a huge amount of satisfaction in being part of something so productive.

Since it was all internal development, I’m not going to share the details of the idea. However, I was one of the two developers on the team (we were also joined by an awesome interface designer and fabulous digital sales person) and I wrote a back-end server in Node.js that had to implement a web server, IMAP to Gmail, and OAuth to Box.com. I’d been doing some serious Node.js development in a previous project, so I didn’t have to learn that, and the IMAP stuff wasn’t too different from a hobby project I’ve discussed before (although that was in Python). Getting OAuth to work was the main hurdle, but the advantage of picking popular frameworks and services is that others are likely to have solved the major problems before me, and Stack Overflow was a good source of solutions.

In any case, I thought it might be worthwhile to share a couple of the things that I think I did well, and which might help others going into their own Hackathons. Putting aside the strength of the idea and the talent possessed by the team – which would have been the principal things that helped us win the top prize – I think there were three things that put us in the best position to pull it off.

1. Networking prior to pitching

The start of the Hackathon was to build a team on the strength of a one-minute pitch, and around half the participants pitched an idea. So, it was a pretty competitive way to start things off, and one minute isn’t much time to sell yourself and your idea. However, before the pitching began, there was about a half hour of social drinks (the Hackathon started after work had finished for the day).

I decided to use the social drinks time to be social, rather than just chatting to people that I already knew. As it turned out, this was a good thing to do, since a natural ice-breaker was to ask if someone was planning to pitch an idea, and to share the idea I was planning to pitch. This meant that I got to speak to several people for longer than one minute about my idea, and one of those people ended up deciding to join my team.

This was a lucky break, since once the one-minute pitches were all done, there were now two of us going around selling the project idea to others. I doubt I would’ve gotten a project team together without this, since I hadn’t pre-arranged a team to work on the idea.

2. Knowing ahead of time how to achieve the idea

Luckily, the idea was one that I’d done some initial work on with others in Telstra. Also, I’d done a bit of research to see how a useful version of it might be implemented in the time available. One of the rules was that we had to use a partner API, like that of Box.com’s, so for example I had a quick look to see that the APIs would do what was needed.

As a result, I was able to explain clearly at the start how I proposed that we would go about building something. Also, I was able to respond to a variety of objections and arguments that were put to us by mentors, peers and judges during the Hackathon.

That’s not to say that I was stubborn or unmoving when it came to the idea (at least, I’d like to think I wasn’t). It’s just that I wasn’t making decisions or coming up with responses from a position of ignorance. We did explore a couple of variants of the idea as we went along and there were additional features that were built that I hadn’t originally thought of. However, we were very focussed, and I think this helped in realising the idea.

3. Progressing through Tuckman’s Stages ASAP

If you haven’t heard of Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing stages of team development, add it to your to-do list to read up. (Or do it now – I’ll wait here if you want.) I was conscious that the team had only a limited time to complete the project, and a major risk was consuming valuable time in internal team politics. We needed to get to the Performing stage as quickly as possible.

Rather than detail exactly how the team evolved, I’ll just mention a few things that I think helped us progress:

  • Forming the team in a social setting was a good way to start with some of the barriers broken down.
  • The pre-work mentioned in point #2 above helped us stay in synch. Also, the first thing I did is answer questions from the team on the idea and its implementation, so we begun heading in the same direction.
  • The next thing I did was ask everyone for their thoughts and plans on how to begin, so we had a collective plan.
  • As the idea evolved, we wrote up the specifics on one of the walls of the office we were in so that everyone could see it.
  • Everyone had largely independent activities, so we weren’t held up waiting on each other.
  • I was team “captain” but I spent much of my time contributing to the final outputs, i.e. was part of the team rather than the manager of the team.

That said, the team was made up of easy-going people, so it was probably less likely we’d have a big falling-out. However, since I didn’t know any of them in advance, I didn’t know this.


We also spend a couple of hours prior to the final three-minute presentation going over (and over) the demo and presentation. This was worthwhile, but an obvious thing to do.

So, I think I ended up with a winning team through a combination of good luck and good planning. However, while I can’t help with the luck, I hope the above tips would aid you if you’re entering a Hackathon. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Clash of cultures

I returned to Australia to resume working at Telstra the month before the current CEO joined the company. Sol Trujillo took up his position in July 2005, and brought in a number of trusted people he’d worked with at previous companies. The result was a dramatic increase in the number of Americans in top positions in Telstra. This is hardly news, or particularly interesting.

However, what I have found quite interesting is the intersection between the American business culture and the Australian. In particular, what is often taken by Australians as brash, arrogant, or undiplomatic behaviour can be seen alternatively as plain talking, “speaking their mind”, or direct behaviour. I suspect that this is to be admired in American business circles while seeming unsophisticated or suspect in an Australian context. This is most clear in the Australian business press.

For example, concerning the recent submissions to the national broadband tender, Telstra put in a 12 page letter. Earlier in the process, as quoted in The Age, Telstra had stated that they would not bid if there wasn’t a guarantee that structural separation was not on the table, and this was not a bid. Optus agreed, stating “This is not a bid; it’s not even a partial bid”, as quoted in the Australian IT, but later in that article claiming “Telstra has once again proven that they are all bluff”. Clearly this was the opposite of bluff, but once again we see the continued assumption that Telstra’s culture of keeping the commitments of senior management is actually an elaborate game.

I have seen many examples of where Telstra would officially, publically make a commitment and then do everything possible to follow through on that. Even when, in my humble opinion, occasionally information subsequently turns up suggesting that it might not be the best thing to be doing. But so ingrained is this culture of doing what has been promised, that not doing it is not an option.

And yet, still the media treat every commitment made by Telstra as mere positioning. If it were Australians running the show, we would understand it as such, and statements to the press would be part of a negotiating game, to be bargained up or down from. It took me a couple of years to notice that this has not been the case, but the media still doesn’t seem to have twigged that it isn’t the old Telstra, and there’s a different culture at work.

Perhaps the Australian media itself could benefit from more foreigners in the mix, or even in control? And if there’s a more contentious statement than Telstra speaks the truth, it’s that we might benefit from foreign control of Australian media. Hmmm. I’ve said enough.

A good telco analysis

Telstra’s pretty good at internal comms – almost every article or TV story about Telstra gets sent around the company in no time flat. However, it has emphasised to me the amount of confusion that is out there about the current situation with Telstra, the ACCC, the G9 and the Government. It’s not surprising – it’s pretty complicated.

But then I came across an article written by Greg Peel at FNArena that summarised the Australian telco debate all in lay terms. I’d never heard of FNArena before, but it seems that they have people who appreciate the messiness of the current messy situation. Not that I agree 100% with it all, but it’s the best writeup I’ve seen in the mainstream media. If you’re a little confused by it all, I do recommend a read of it.

And recently Greg Peel’s written another piece; a shorter one this time. It basically brings the previous article up to date with the recent government announcement. It will be interesting to see if his forecast comes true.

Anyway, I’m going to be keeping an eye out for his writing in future.