4 Lessons I Learnt from (my first) Hackathon - My Datafication

16 April, 2017

4 Lessons I Learnt from (my first) Hackathon

Have you heard about Hackathon? The multi-day event when you have no sleep and try to create a fully functional application or even a mockup of it from scratch, and then you have to pitch your idea to the judges and audience hoping to get their vote? Yes, this one! Well, Smartbox (the company I work for) organized a two-day Hackathon competition to gather innovative IT ideas that could improve our working lives. As you have already imagined, I decided to join a team and contribute with what I know best – data analysis!

To make long story short, me and my team joined our forces and used customer data to extract some useful insights and create interesting infographics. We focused on four aspects of the customer data and questions that had not been answered yet, and provided informative insights useful for different people and departments of the company. We combined tools, technologies, and knowledge from different departments and got the 3rd place in the competition! But what I want to talk about in this post is how much you can learn, all the knowledge you can exchange and things that you can achieve in such a short time period.

Lesson #1: Diversity is a strength

Our team consisted of 6 members, 3 from the Business Intelligence team, 2 from the Operations and 1 from Marketing Department . Even the guys from BI had different roles, such as Database Administrator vs. R expert vs. SQL expert. Different data may lead to different insights, while different tools can be used for different purposes. Overall, combining technological skills led us using SQL Server for data analysis, R for statistical analysis and Power BI as the main visualization tool. Bringing together knowledge from operations and marketing helped us focus on the most meaningful insights. It was incredible, how different people of the same company look for different information in the same data and how combining different points of view could lead to magnificent results.

Lesson #2: Establish and Assign Responsibilities 

Key point of successful team management is to identify everyone's needs and aspirations so as to better allocate tasks and responsibilities. Our informal team lead asked each one of us about our interests in terms of what kind of data we would like to work on or which tools we would like to use. Combining this information he allocated the tasks. For example, out of a team of six, we had one database administrator who was responsible for collecting and combining subsets of analyses, and providing one single source of data to the design team, two Visualization Developers (our design team) on Power BI, two Back-end Developers (I was one of them) who undertook the main data analysis and one Data Scrum Master who facilitated the team with data sources, coding etc. (of course he did also data analysis). The team worked perfectly as each one of us knew how we would contribute to the team and how our work matched the general scope.

Lesson #3: Time management is the key

Hackathon allows usually around 24 to 36 hours to create something from scratch and have it functioning at an acceptable level at the end of the event. Thus, at the beginning, the team meets to dish out responsibilities, set sub-deadlines, and then start developing (hacking). In our case, we discussed and defined our tasks and target result, as well as the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) to deliver if we would not manage to do everything we planned. We defined a process of working so that no one stays idle and loses time because of the others work progress. It was an important lesson learnt for me, as I witnessed how knowing the timeline can force you to focus on the most important things and get the best possible results. When you are developing something, there is always room for improvements, but in Hackathon you should focus on what is feasible to achieve at a given time frame. Also, it is important to respect others' work, as your delay may impact the time available for the next phase, e.g. if I delayed to deliver the analysis results, then the design team would have less time to create the proper visualizations in the tool.

Lesson #4: Focus on one task at a time

It may be part of the time management lesson, but I believe that it is important to mention it on its own. When you have time limits you cannot multitask. Or to be more accurate, multi-tasking (for me) is not doing multiple things at the same time, but being able to switch from one task to another in a heartbeat. You should check your task- and time- line and focus on one task at a time. Focusing on one thing helps you gather all your mental strength and energy to achieve one goal and do things right. There is no room for disturbances. Each Hackathon team was working on their project (no meetings, no other work, no extra working tasks) and in just two day magic happened. The amount of work achieved was extraordinary, as from raw data we created a fully functional customer insights report about the Smartbox customer. 


Hackathon is a great opportunity to share knowledge, meet new people with diverse skills and learn how to team-up in order to achieve a common goal, The lessons described above can be applied in many situations of our personal and professional lives, and especially in many data analysis projects. For example, applying different data analysis/mining approaches and algorithms can extract different insights (diversity is a strength). Sometimes, we will (and should) be out of our comfort zone, but it is important to exploit existing skills and strength to improve ourselves. As a data professional, we will engage different roles and tasks and being able to navigate and manage our time among them is a valuable asset. Evaluating the available time, setting priorities and making the best out of it, while always respecting other peoples' time, should help us stand out from other good data scientists. Of course, there are more things that might affect that but let discuss them in a following post.

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P.S. Happy Easter everyone! 😉

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